COLUMBIA — Third-graders at Lee Expressive Arts Elementary School stared at "World Hunger" shown on a Smart board in their classroom. The bronze sculpture by artist Billie Evans shows hands reaching for the little that remains in a tilted bowl.

"Let’s think of some words to go with this image," teacher Carissa Seek said.

Hands shot up. "Hunger," one student said.

"Desperate," said another. 

At the end of the brainstorm, the students had formed their words into a single six-word story: "Skinny hand grasping, desperate for food."

"Being able to write a story with just six words can be so powerful," Seek said later. "The kids are trying really hard to pick those strong and powerful words."

Those six-word stories, generated by all three of the third-grade classrooms at Lee, were the beginning of the Empty Bowls Project. The international project is promoted by the nonprofit Imagine/RENDER Group. Local artists or community members create and then donate clay bowls to a community meal, at which the bowls are then sold to raise money.

Each event is done at the community level, so money raised goes to a local organization working to ease hunger. In Columbia, that organization is the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture. Adam Saunders, the center's development director, first visited Lee students on Feb. 7 to kick off the project.

"The students play an important role in the philanthropy of our community," Saunders said. "They can give something that they’ve put energy and thought and creativity into that can multiply through this event."

The event, a community meal on March 19, will be hosted at Missouri United Methodist Church. The bowls made by Lee students will be used to serve the meal and then sold to attendees.

Derby Ridge Elementary School students also produced clay bowls for the event, Saunders said, and Paxton Keeley Elementary School will donate the extra bowls left over from its participation last year.

The Columbia organization Access Arts also contributed the bowls, inviting church, student and community groups to participate, he said.

"We explain to the students that they’re going to be donating their bowl to this process," Saunders said. "People have the option to donate to Planting for the Pantry, and they can take a bowl home."

The center has run Planting for the Pantry for five years. Money raised for the program goes toward an urban farm that grows fresh foods to be donated to area food banks.

"If you are a family who shops at the food bank for your source of cooking, without the Planting for the Pantry program you would be more limited to canned vegetables," Gennie Pfannenstiel, an art integrated specialist at Lee, said. "This allows families to have a more nutritious diet with the fresh vegetables."

According to a 2014 study by Feeding Missouri, 125,600 unique clients were served by a Feeding America partner food bank on a weekly basis. Sixty-nine percent of those client households plan to receive food from a program with a partnered food bank on a regular basis.

Columbia has one Feeding America partner, The Food Bank for Central & Northeast Missouri.

Art with a community purpose

Jagged lumps of clay rested in each mold in the art room, ready to be formed by Valerie Schoeneberg’s third-grade class at Lee. Students flocked toward the tables and got directly to work on forming their own clay bowl.

Students were equipped with their own six-word stories and imprinted them into the rim of the bowl with stamp letters. The message is meant to remind the future owner of the bowl about the importance of hunger awareness.

"My six-word story is, ‘The urban farm grows healthy vegetables,’" Miles Randolph, 9, said. "It’s all organic — it’s not fake. It’s not all that other unhealthy stuff. They just give it away for free, which is kind of nice."

Pfannenstiel emphasized to students the importance of inspiring the community with their hunger stories rather than focusing on the negative.

"Their six-word stories really pour their hearts out for people who are famished and people who are hungry," Pfannenstiel said. "We had to work through that. We know now that you feel so strongly about hunger, but what can you do to bring the light to that darkness? That was a really powerful learning lesson for them."

Third-grader Clarity Milarsky worked with Pfannenstiel to revise her story.

"Mine said, ‘We can help but hunger remains,’" Clarity said. "So then I thought, OK we can just switch it around. ‘Hunger remains, but we can help.’"

Making connections with the community they’re serving has been a crucial aspect of the Empty Bowls Project for Lee students. The third-graders traveled to CCUA’s urban farm to see firsthand how fresh foods are prepared for the food pantries.

"They’ve got their own little gardens," Miles said. "We’ve taken field trips there before. They’ve got lots of gardens, and they’re growing lots and lots and lots of stuff."

Experiences gained through visiting the community garden help the students associate their work on the clay bowls with a specific philanthropic cause.

"They’re very aware of where food comes from," Pfannenstiel said. "Since this project is a project that’s earning money for the community garden, which they’ve visited, it makes sense for them to realize that they’re helping give back to the garden, which then will donate food to the pantry. It just fits so nicely with their learning."

Pfannenstiel believes learning about hunger through visual art helps the students process the material and urges them to do something about the issue.

"Art makes a good tool for doing something in response to hunger," she said.

Instilling awareness at a young age

Last year, every student at Lee participated in the project. This year, the school decided to focus only on third-graders.

"They’re at the age where helping is huge for them, so they’re very excited about feeling like they’re doing something for our community," Seek said. "They get to see that they’re a huge part of this process. It’s good for them to see that this is what it’s like to help, and that it’s important to volunteer and to give right here in our own community."

Learning how to be a good citizen is something built directly into the social studies curriculum, Seek said. Connecting that learning to hunger fits in well with that curriculum and leaves an impression on students.

"I used to think when I was little, like, 'oh Columbia is so amazing, we’ve got everything,'" Miles said. "We’ve all got growing plants, we’ve all got good food, we’ve all got amazing healthy food, we’re all pretty healthy, we all get good exercise. But that’s not entirely true. Lots of us have healthy food and get lots of exercise, but there’s a small population that doesn’t have access to good food."

Ashritha Akkaladevi, 8, used her six-word story to emphasize the importance of service. Her story reads, "Serve and give organic food, serve."

"Maybe getting what you want isn't that fun when you see people on the road who need homes and food," Ashritha said. "Even if you get all this stuff, seeing people without much stuff to have and be with, it feels sad."

The Empty Bowls project has taught her that serving the community should always be a priority, especially where hunger is concerned.

"In front of our doorways and in the highway, we see people that are asking us for stuff like food and money," she said. "So I know that serve and give is what we are always going to do, because it’s our community."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

  • Education reporter, Spring 2017. I am a sophomore studying magazine writing. Reach me by email at or on Twitter at @libmoe13.

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