For the 33,000 Dakota County residents who experience food insecurity, empty bowls represent hunger and meals missed.

But at The Open Door food shelf, empty bowls have come to signify something else altogether: community support for ending hunger. On Thursday, The Open Door will host its sixth annual Empty Bowls fundraiser, where people gather to break bread and share soup served in artist-made bowls.

"The thing that's nice about Empty Bowls is that there's a community feel to it. It feels very much grass roots," said Lisa Horn, the executive director of The Open Door.

Empty Bowls, which is open for lunch and dinner at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Eagan, draws in a diverse crowd, from business people to families and seniors. "It's fun. There's a good vibe to it," Horn said.

The Open Door is a food shelf and resource center with sites in Lakeville and Eagan that launched in 2009. Some of the earliest volunteers were also involved in the Eagan Art House, and less than a year after the food shelf opened, they organized the first Empty Bowls fundraiser, making many of the bowls themselves.

Empty Bowls fundraisers began in the early 1990s in Michigan. The idea caught on, and now charities all the across the country host such fundraiser meals each year.

There's no precise template for the fundraisers, but most of them are similar to The Open Door event: Artists make bowls for the meals, restaurants donate soup and bread, and at the end of the event, attendees take their bowls home as a reminder of hunger in the community.

Art and food

The Eagan event is a collaboration between The Open Door and local artists. In addition to donating bowls, artists donate artwork — from wall hangings to sculptures — for a raffle. The Open Door expects more than 500 people to attend the fundraiser, and Horn said her goal is to raise $25,000 from donations and sponsorships.

The Open Door has two brick-and-mortar food shelves, which were known as the Eagan and Lakeville Resource Centers until a rebranding last spring.

But in recent years, the organization has shifted focus to a mobile food distribution program. With the mobile program, it takes trucks out to seven community sites, meeting families and individuals facing food insecurity in their neighborhoods and at their schools.

"One of the biggest barriers to accessing food support [is] actually lack of transportation or inconsistent transportation or not having gas money," Horn said.

Getting to a food shelf, or even to a grocery store, is especially challenging for low-income families in Dakota County because public transportation is limited.

"Geographically the region is so large," Horn said. "If somebody lives in Inver Grove Heights, where do they go? There's not a food shelf in their community."

The mobile distribution service has been so successful that last year The Open Door started a mobile program just for children.

The Mobile Lunch Box is designed to help bridge the summer gap for students who receive free or reduced-price meals during the school year. Two days a week, The Open Door brings bagged lunches and enrichment activities to neighborhoods with high concentrations of low-income children.

Empty Bowls is primarily a fundraiser, but Horn said it aligns with The Open Door's commitment to building community as it strives to alleviate food insecurity.

"Our organization is about food, but it's also about dignity and hope," Horn said. "Our role is about building community, empowering people, and inspiring hope in a time when there's glimmers of it but it's hard to find."

Dylan Peers McCoy is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.