Shaping Bowls, Forming Community
On Sunday, November 17, the southern Vermont community will come together at Mount Anthony Union Middle School for the 2019 Bennington Empty Bowls Supper.
Anticipated to attract over 700 attendees, this soup supper is the largest annual fundraiser for the Kitchen Cupboard of Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services (GBICS), which provides food to one quarter of the town of Bennington’s population.
Empty Bowls is a collaboration between GBICS and Yoko Inoue’s Social Kitchen: Ceramics, Food, and Community course and is supported by Bennington College’s $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to collaboratively address the systemic causes of food insecurity in Bennington County.
Courses for a Cause
Over the course of Fall term, students in Social Kitchen have been heavily involved in the organizational process behind Empty Bowls. Students have engaged in service-based learning: distributing food with GBICS, sourcing donated vegetables and favorite soup recipes from community members at local farms and the Bennington Farmers Market, cooking soup stocks under the tutelage of Director of Dining Services Steve Bohrer and at GBICS’s learning kitchen, leading over 150 community members in a series of bowl making and glazing workshops held at the College’s ceramics studios, and promoting the event throughout the College and town.
I’m so excited to see the community come together to eat and hold art handmade by their neighbors and friends. Empty Bowls is a beautiful event.
Libby Green '22
“Social Kitchen has been such an interesting course because it’s invested in the community,” said Cass Cole ’22, who spent several Saturdays working at GBICS’s Kitchen Cupboard and the Bennington Farmers’ Market ahead of the event. “This class uses food to bring people together and address a problem, while also offering opportunities to make art with community members. I’ve enjoyed having discussions with people. It feels like we’re all carrying this event together and can use it to do something really cool.”
Cole’s Plan at Bennington is focused on conflict resolution and peacebuilding, and she’s particularly interested in how food can be a conduit for healing and connection. In addition to Social Kitchen, Cole’s food studies courses have included Inoue’s Edible Matters: Cartography and the Cultural Biography of Food and Susan Sgorbati’s Understanding Food Insecurity in Bennington County.
“Susan’s class is very action oriented, so in addition to readings and guest speakers, we’re also engaged in both individual and group projects. It’s been interesting to take our class discussions and directly apply what we’re learning to a field I can see myself working in in the future,” said Cole.
For her personal project, Cole is researching garden kits, which contain all the materials needed to start growing food on an individual level.
“I’m looking into different programs that have developed similar kits and developing a proposal to bring garden kits to Bennington,” said Cole. “I’m exploring what would go into this garden kit, how I would distribute it, how I could survey the results and assess its usefulness to the community.”
The biggest takeaway from her food studies courses, said Cole, is a deeper understanding of the concept of “food sovereignty.”
“I’d heard of food sovereignty in the past but didn’t really know what it meant until Social Kitchen,” said Cole. “Food justice is an umbrella term that reflects everything we want in an ethical, accessible food system—but food sovereignty also involves every individual and every community having agency over and feeling in control of their food. How can we move the system from giving handouts to empowering people and communities to feel in charge of their food, able to grow and cook what they want?”
Among the students in Social Kitchen, several hail from Vermont, giving them dual perspectives as both Bennington students and community members. Such is the case for Raven Realmuto ’23, who grew up in nearby Shaftsbury and now studies Ceramics at the College.
“I went to Mount Anthony Middle School, where Empty Bowls is being held, and I’ve seen my friends from high school, middle school, and elementary school at the bowl making workshops,” said Realmuto. “I’m part of the public outreach committee for the event. When I made a Facebook post asking people if they had any extra vegetables from their gardens, some of my former teachers contacted me to donate. My friend’s dad owns Clearbrook Farm, and they donated boxes as well.”
To Realmuto, Social Kitchen has illuminated the many ways in which the College and the local community can be connected to and support each other.
“There’s a lot of hidden food insecurity in Vermont,” said Realmuto. “However, there are also a lot of resources available that people don’t know about—there are many farms willing to negotiate prices or donate to food programs. But we have to keep talking about and addressing this issue, so it doesn’t become worse.”
Libby Green ’22 also grew up in Vermont. She is currently pursuing a Plan in Environmental and Food Studies, which she hopes will lead her to a future supporting farmers and food workers in her home state.
“It feels really good to be engaging with the wider community,” said Green of her Social Kitchen experience. “It’s also been cool to see what goes into event planning—from fundraising, advertising, design, and interacting with people. That work is really informative for pursuing any community engagement path.”
Green also designed the logo for this year’s Empty Bowls, which features a pattern of bowls pouring into each other. Together with the staff at GBICS, Green printed posters on the College’s Risograph printmaking machine and distributed them around the College and town.
“It’s been eye opening to realize both how important and how challenging community organizing is,” said Green. “As a college student, I’ve been wondering how I’m going to make a difference, so talking to the people who run GBICS, seeing how hard they work, and hearing how fulfilling they find it has helped me as I figure out what I want to do.”
Michelle Freeman ’20 and Kestrel Osman ’22 both took the Social Kitchen course in previous years, but they have returned to pursue the course as a tutorial and to help organize Empty Bowls, serving as liaisons between students in the course and the GBICS Empty Bowls steering committee.
Freeman, who studies Visual Arts and Public Action, has been leading ceramics workshops with fifth graders at Bennington Elementary and students at Mount Anthony Union High School, in addition to the organizational and logistical work she manages behind the scenes. For Freeman, developing relationships with people of various ages and groups has been the most rewarding part of the program.
“It’s 100% all about the people I’ve met,” said Freeman. “I’ve met at least ten to twenty new people over the course of this project who have made my experience at Bennington so much more worthwhile. During my first year, I felt isolated and longed for a family and support system—now, I feel like I’ve built that community.”
Freeman has also enjoyed seeing people artistically blossom as they dive into the ceramics experience.
“I think a lot of people feel intimidated about making art in front of others. I had a lot of conversations during the workshops with people who worried they messed up their bowls,” said Freeman. “But art doesn’t have to be about good-or-bad and right-or-wrong. It’s exciting to these conversations and show people that yes, you are capable of doing this. Everyone can create something; you don’t have to be a phenomenal artist to make a great bowl.”
Osman’s Plan explores functional art, which she describes as “a balance between function and craft.” She’s also a Vermonter who has found a deeper connection with the local community through Social Kitchen and its associated workshops.
“When I took Social Kitchen two years ago, Yoko asked us to find prompts to ask people in the workshop, to start a conversation around food insecurity,” said Osman. “It’s a big problem in our community, but the more we can talk about it, the more we can conquer it.”
Osman loves hearing about people’s favorite recipes—the stories, family histories, and cultures that undergird a good meal.
“I love talking about what someone’s parents would cook for them when they were little, or and hearing older people talk about what they liked to eat as kids,” said Osman. “It’s inspiring to hear about different ways of cooking food in different cultures.”
As the students prepare to welcome the community to Empty Bowls, they all look forward to celebrating an evening of art, food, and friendship.
“Everything is donated, so every soup will be different. We’ll have everything from chicken noodle to spicy chili,” said Freeman.
“Empty Bowls will be my first community event outside of the College,” said Cole. “I’ve heard all these stories about past years, where students found intimate connections as they served soup to a stranger who had selected a bowl they made. It feels important for the College to integrate itself into the community, making ourselves one community rather than two separate ones.”
“I’m so excited to see the community come together to eat and hold art handmade by their neighbors and friends,” said Green. “Empty Bowls is a beautiful event. If you’re sharing food with other people, then you already have something in common with them. It's the best kind of icebreaker—food fills you up and feeds you, and so does community.”
By Natalie Redmond, Associate Writer