ST. ALBANS CITY — It’s the longest table in St. Albans, and it’s primed for rich and hearty soups, warm breads and desserts from around the city to make sure no one has an empty belly.

Even COVID-19 couldn’t stop them: “Empty Bowls” is back again, and come May 8, Martha’s Kitchen will once again be the hottest restaurant in town.

“It’s something I look forward to every year,” said Donna Fontana Smith, a volunteer who helped bring the annual event to St. Albans.

What is Empty Bowls?

The event started in 1990 when Bloomfield Hills Michigan art teacher John Hartom came up with a unique way to get students involved in a sort of food drive — the students would create their own soup bowls, invite the school faculty to a soup lunch and ask for donations in return.

“There was a moment of stunned silence, and the whole environment changed,” Hartom said on the organization’s website, adding that “something special had happened — and that we had a responsibility to make it happen again.”

The idea exploded internationally, and spawned the nonprofit called “Empty Bowls,” which helped raise over $1 million for World Food Day the following year, according to the nonprofit website.

The event is simple: local artisans craft their own unique and self-inspired soup bowls to be picked out, filled with the soup or stew of their choice, and then taken home by patrons to be cherished as a memory and a part of the home.

Traditionally, patrons pay for their ticket and eagerly trot up to the selection of hand-crafted pottery, selecting their favorite to then be filled with a hearty homemade soup. This year, ticket holders will stop by an outdoor tent to pick up their bowl before choosing their soup at a takeout window. Meals will be packaged to-go.

“It’s a very hands-on opportunity…(the event) is a piece of the community, all the way up to the end when we’re rinsing out their bowls for them to take home. It’s a full heart and full belly. And that is absolute joy,” said Fontana-Smith.

And the soups aren’t your standard Campbell’s chicken noodle. Homemade soups, many of them donated from organizations around the city, include rich broccoli and cheddar soup, Zuppa Toscana and others.

Who benefits?

Locally, the event raises funds for Martha’s Community Kitchen’s food and community space serving meals from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. seven days a week.

Martha’s Kitchen manager, Brother Bob Begley, of Saint Mary of the Angels Fraternity, said the kitchen typically serves 55 to 155 meals a day.

In 2000, they served over 9,000 meals. Nineteen years later, they served over 32,000.

In 2020, the organization served over 42,000 meals with a staff of two paid employees, with 25 volunteers every day of the week.

During the first months of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Begley said they served between 400 and 500 meals a day in April and May, and delivered meals to those without secure housing and senior housing facilities.

Last year brought its greatest challenge to Martha’s Community Kitchen yet. Because of the pandemic, the center dropped from 150 volunteers to 25, introducing a much heavier workload for the volunteers who could be in person.

“A lot of neighbors come in and bring home food for neighbors,” Begley said. “We’re always here. We’ve never run out of food.”

The kitchen is inspired by a story in Luke 10:38-42, in which Jesus is housed by sisters Mary and Martha. Both Begley and Fontana-Smith said their organization, though it may be based on a story from a Christian religion, is made up of a cornucopia of volunteers regardless of faith.

“We were founded by an ecumenical group...with 14 churches as our foundation, rotating and sponsoring us,” Begley said.

The gourmet meals roll out every day, and Brother Begley said they’ve opened the door to donations from businesses, families and individuals, whether it’s a bag of flour or a tray of something good to eat.

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