Empty Bowls: Fundraiser attracts estimated 2,300 diners

By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The bowl of soup and crust of bread was meant to remind diners of hunger, but it certainly didn’t hurt that it was delicious.
“Oh, my goodness, you just have to try the potato soup from Weezie’s,” Barbara Stafford said, spooning in petite bites as she walked away from the station the Tupelo deli had set up Wednesday in Tupelo Furniture Market Building V.
Weezie’s was one of 50 restaurants, churches and other businesses that provided soup for the 13th annual Empty Bowls Luncheon, the largest annual fundraiser benefiting The Salvation Army’s feeding programs.
As they do each year on the first day of Lent, the season during which many Christians fast and pray in preparation for Easter, participants started serving hot soup at 11 a.m.
In the to-go area, Greg Kagrise and friends worked up a sweat, filling orders.
Near the entrance, Jennifer Walls sold full, ready-to-serve meals prepared by her co-workers at BancorpSouth.
A group of Tupelo women calling themselves the Fitness, Food and Fellowship Club, with members hailing from China, India, Japan, Pakistan, South Africa and South Korea, sold culinary creations native to their homelands.
Amid the estimated crowd of 2,300, Mac McAllister, director of the Culinary Arts Program at the Link Centre, dished out helpings of crab bisque.
Like many on Wednesday, McAllister served with a heavy heart, remembering Julia Blakey, a driving force in establishing the culinary arts program who died last year.
Blakey was also instrumental in envisioning and organizing the first Empty Bowls as a member of Salvation Army’s Women’s Auxiliary.
Blakey’s daughter, Merritt, was among dozens of volunteers buzzing around the building Wednesday.
“It’s an honor to serve here,” she said. “I’m just amazed at how generous people in this area are.”
The Salvation Army has struggled recently because of increased demand on its feeding programs and social services, as well as decreased donations.
But as the crowd began to thin Wednesday, Women’s Auxiliary member Betty Reece felt good about how the numbers were shaping up.
Shortly after the serving stopped, more than $6,000 had been counted from the bake sale, the sale of smoked Boston butts, the BancorpSouth meals and a raffle. That didn’t include tickets or takeout. Last year the luncheon brought in more than $40,000.
“It’s just a great cause,” Tupelo resident Marsha Padgett said as she enjoyed New Orleans-style gumbo from Woody’s. “You get a little taste of everything, and it all goes toward a great organization.”