Needs rise in Valley as food bank fills demand with Empty Bowls

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People gather for the Empty Bowls painting party at the Radisson Hotel on Saturday, June 3, 2023, in McAllen. (Delcia Lopez/[email protected])

McALLEN — There’s more to empty bowls than just a clever name for the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley’s premiere fundraising event. As around 300 of them were nestled in the hands of painters here at the Radisson Hotel McAllen Airport on Saturday morning, with attendees trying their hand at creative designs and fun scribbles, the people behind the organization are hoping that what the bowls represent will inspire generosity in the hearts of Valley residents.

Hundreds of thousands of people each year seek out the food bank for help staying fed, a public service long-provided by the nonprofit but one that’s become ever more in focus ever since the COVID-19 pandemic spawned more need, and since inflation has driven up the cost of nearly everything.

Food bank CEO Libby A. Saenz said that even weekly, it’s difficult to make sure the supply meets the demand for an operation that’s funded largely by donations, which have been scarce recently.

Every week, she said, the food bank provides assistance to about 76,000 to 83,000 residents. And although they try to provide these necessities to families across the Valley, the food bank itself has had to overcome recent struggles to meet that goal.

Saenz explained that last year was particularly difficult on the food bank due to many of the government commodities, which make up about 50% of the food supply at the organization, being canceled.

This is where the annual Empty Bowls Paint Party Kick-off comes in.

On Saturday, local residents and organizations gathered at the Radisson to help raise awareness of these needs in the area.

There is reason for optimism, however, as things are starting to look up now that government food deliveries are beginning to make their way back to the banks again.

“Slowly but surely it looks like the loads are starting to come in,” Saenz said. “There are more subsidies coming through the Texas Department of Agriculture, so we’re hoping to see our shelves get full again.”

There will always be a need in an ever-growing region, however.

Adam Gonzalez from Harlingen paints his bowl during the Empty Bowls party at the Radisson Hotel on Saturday, June 3, 2023 in McAllen. (Delcia Lopez/[email protected])

Saenz explained that they help serve about 364,000 families every year, and that number continues to increase by 15% to 20% on an annual basis.

In fact this year they have seen an increase in the number of senior citizens that require food assistance. She explained that with the country currently facing inflation, many seniors do not have enough money to pay for basic needs.

“What they’re getting is not even enough to cover the bills that they have, their rent or payments and stuff like that, so we’re seeing a lot more people coming through our doors,” Saenz said. “Hunger does not discriminate. It can hit anybody.”

Although the food bank has faced struggles, Saenz continues to be hopeful of its impact in the Valley.

“If you continue doing good, good comes back to you,” Saenz said.


The scene inside the ballroom at the Radisson sounded festive with 80s songs in constant rotation. But seated at the white tables and charges with empty bowls scattered across them were people with serious intent.

They had a job to do as around 300 bowls needed to be painted at Saturday’s event.

Each of the bowls painted at the kick-off along with any other painting party, which can be organized by other organizations and residents, will be given away at the end of the fundraising auction in October.

“The biggest impact that it makes is the awareness,” Saenz said of the significance of the event, noting that hunger is pervasive in the area. “We have to all take care of our own people, take care of our neighbors, take care of our community.”

People gather for the Empty Bowls painting party at Radisson Hotel on Saturday, June 3, 2023 in McAllen. (Delcia Lopez/[email protected])

Brittany Campbell, who attended the event with the Texas Gas Service and ONE Gas, explained that her organization often works closely with the food bank to help in the cause.

Although it is only her second time participating at an empty bowls event, Campbell explained that the Texas Gas Service often hosts its own paint parties.

“Our company is very big on volunteering and giving back to the community,” Campbell said, adding that “anyway we can participate and help out especially on behalf of the food bank” is important.

About two months ago the organization held a donation drive in which all food donations went to the food bank.

Although she didn’t know what she wanted to paint Saturday she was excited to participate.

Harlingen resident Jenny Gonzalez, 40, attended the event with her husband. Although this was Gonzalez’s first time participating in an empty bowls event in the Valley, it was not her first time helping raise awareness for food banks.

She explained that she often did volunteer work with food banks in her hometown of Laredo and in Dallas.

“I’ve always liked volunteering for food banks and stuff … It’s definitely something I look forward to doing because there are so many people who need help with hunger, and this is just one way to help bring awareness to it,” Gonzalez said.

More information on how to donate can be found here.