About 15 years ago, Mary Elaine Bernard and a small group of artists at her Mandeville pottery studio made handmade bowls and homemade soups to fill them, selling their wares to raise money to feed the hungry.

“It was first held at the Trailhead, and we all made soups. It was a very humble start, and it has really grown,” said Dena Dyer, executive director of the Samaritan Center.

Last year, the Empty Bowl fundraiser helped feed more than 2,700 families through the center in Mandeville.

The event has gotten bigger, but also much more elaborate. This year, for $40, guests will receive a handmade bowl, food from more than 20 area restaurants, beer, wine and a chance to take part in a silent auction. 

Empty Bowl will be held from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday at the Pontchartrain Yacht Club, 140 Jackson Ave. in Mandeville.

The event is sponsored by the Old Mandeville Business Association, and spokesman Rick Dennie said the 80-member association helps line up sponsorships and support from local businesses and restaurants.

He said guests can expect a mix of soups, gumbos, chilis and pastas to fill their bowls. Students from the ProStart Culinary program will help with food prep and service, and a jazz ensemble from Mandeville High will provide entertainment.

He noted that the money goes to the community. “The Samaritan Center directly helps people in our community in west St. Tammany,” Dennie said.

Lending their hands to making the bowls this year are art students Bernard teaches at Mandeville Junior High, as well as students supporting the service project at Monteleone Junior High, Pitcher Junior High and Pontchartrain Elementary schools. Artists also donate handmade bowls, and the OMBA purchases additional bowls as needed.

Dyer loves the beauty of the idea.

“Part of the real fun of the event is to get to go to the big table, full of all colors of pottery, and chose a bowl” to eat from and take home, she said. The special bowl reminds people throughout the year that many others need their bowls filled.

“It’s a visual reminder the we need to be helping, and it promotes gratitude.”

In Dyer’s family, it’s become a Thanksgiving tradition “to eat our gumbo from an Empty Bowl.” She said her children grew up with the tradition, and so when her daughter recently moved out of state, she asked to take a bowl with her.

“There’s something special about the bowls that shows you’ve done something” she said. “It’s a way to celebrate our ability to come together and make a difference.”

The effort is part of the international Empty Bowl/Fill the Bowl program that raises awareness of hunger in order to bring about a grassroots response in local communities. 

The International Empty Bowl/Fill a Bowl requires that to use the name, the event must have a meaningful grassroots impact on hunger. The local Empty Bowl is the main fundraiser for the nonprofit Samaritan Center's food program, which last year helped families with $286,390 worth of food, Dyer said.

“We are a partner with Second Harvest, and this helps make sure we can feed people and impact their hunger,” she said.

The greatest current needs at the center include donations of tuna and peanut butter and jelly.

“These can be given to someone homeless or living in a car” who does not have access to a kitchen, Dyer said, “or to a mother trying to feed her children.”

The Samaritan Center also offers nutrition classes, and recently installed a demonstration garden in front of the center at 402 Girod St. The center encourages anyone who has fruit on their trees or food in their gardens to call to have it harvested and brought to the center.

“We need imperishables, but we want to have fresh foods too,” she said.

After people receive food donations, they are free to pick whatever fresh foods are on the table in the center. This week, there were satsumas, melons, apples, beans and potatoes.

Administrative costs for the Samaritan Center are paid through donations and support from local churches and organizations, as well as sales at the center’s thrift shop, Gran’s Attic. The thrift store is accepting donations of small household items and appliances and is in need of donations of coats and cool-weather clothes.

Tickets to Empty Bowl are available at the door or at the Samaritan Center, 402 Girod St. Hours at the center are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Gran’s Attic Thrift Shoppe is open those hours, and also from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. join Saturdays at 408 Girod St.

For information, call (985) 966-5684 or visit samcen.org.