The Open Door Food Pantry is holding its 12th annual Empty Bowl Dinner at Cruiseport Thursday — and though the bowls may be empty, the ballroom will be packed to full capacity.
A crowd of up top 1,000 is expected to attend the event this year, according to Bridget Jaramillo, Cruiseport's senior event manager. That head count, adds Jaramillo, could go higher as the event — which runs from 4 to 8 p.m.— goes on and tickets continue to be sold at the door.
Admission — $15 for adults, $10 for children younger than 10 — is, like everything else about the evening, a donation that goes straight to support The Open Door's Summer Lunch and Mobile Market programs.
The Summer Lunch program provides lunches for children ages 1 to 18 at seven sites throughout the community during the 10 weeks of summer. The Mobile Market program is a free farmers market that brings fresh produce and groceries to nearly 900 households, typically in low-income neighborhoods where transportation to supermarkets may be challenging.
Such neighborhoods have come to be known in hunger relief organizations as "food deserts." The phrase alone reflects America's growing food crisis, with hunger reaching such emergency levels since the recession began that a language has evolved around it. "Food insecurity" — a phrase which is startlingly new to most Americans — has, according to the Greater Boston Food Bank, which supplies food to The Open Door, has increased by 23 percent since 2008.
Speaking from The Open Door's food pantry at 28 Emerson Ave., Julie LaFontaine, who's headed the agency since 2002, said that from 2010 to 2011, local requests for help have also increased by 23 percent. The number of people being served by The Open Door in Gloucester stands at one out of seven residents, or 14 percent of the city's population.
"But," she adds, "this is a very giving community, and its generosity always meets our goals."
That generosity cannot be measured in money alone. Over 1,000 volunteers working 13,000 hours annually distribute over 600,000 pounds in donated food to 5,000 clients throughout Cape Ann, while hundreds more volunteer time and creativity to making the Empty Bowl Dinner such a huge success.
Those volunteers — amateur and professional "artists" of all ages and stripes, from scout troops to seniors — start hand painting the 1,000 plus "empty" bowls in mid-winter.
The bowls, donated by local potters, are thus transformed into "works of art," exhibited at the dinner and chosen by contributing guests as serving pieces for their meal.
The meal itself is simple; a choice of soups, breads, and cookies, all donated by local restaurants. When dinner is finished, the bowls begin a new life; going home with their new "owners" to serve as unspoken reminders of all those whose bowls are too often left empty.
It is, says one admirer of the event, "zen in its purity and symbolism."
It is also a significant source of revenue, including through a silent auction.
"Last year," says LaFontaine, "the Empty Bowl netted $30,000" — the kind of money, she says, that helps The Open Door distribute food in ways that reflect its understanding of the emotional issues of food insecurity.
The inability to feed a family properly results in a sense of personal devaluation of self-worth — which, in an economically depressed neighborhood can become deeply systemic.
Programs such as the Mobile Market, observes LaFontaine, are sensitive to that. "We set up a tent," she says, "and display the food attractively in wicker baskets, to replicate the food market experience the area's affluent shoppers enjoy."
Empty Bowl dinners are held throughout the country to raise awareness of and funding for hunger relief. The brainchild of a Michigan art teacher, they have, since 1990, raised tens of millions of dollars.
"But," says LaFontaine, commenting on proposed federal and state cuts that will greatly impact hunger relief in general, and The Open Door in particular, "charity alone cannot meet the growing needs. It will take a combination of charity and sensible public safety programs help people."
"That's why events like the Empty Bowl are so important," says LaFontaine, adding that over the course of 12 years, she's watched the Empty Bowl Dinner evolve into a family tradition.
"We had 250 people turn out our first year," LaFontaine recalled, "and last year we had over 1,000.
"This year, the head count could even go higher," she says, quickly adding that extra parking will available at Harbor Beach with complimentary trolley service to and from the event site.
For more information about the Empty Bowl Dinner and The Open Door, visit www.food pantry.org.
Joann Mackenzie can be reached at 978-238-7000, x3457, or at email@example.com.