Dennis Towers taped a big handwritten “Sold Out” sign next to the Saratoga-Wilton Elks Lodge door Sunday afternoon.
“It was the thrill of my life putting that thing up,” he said.
Towers helped organize the second annual Empty Bowls event to benefit Wilton’s food pantry — the pantry he started two years ago. Most of the 300 meal tickets were sold in advance with just 15 available when the doors opened at 1 p.m. They were gone in a few minutes.
“It’s our single largest funding source,” he said in between greetings from friends and volunteers. “I think we’ll break $15,000 this year.”
Past the “sold out” sign, the Elks banquet hall was full of happy-looking people eating food out of hand-turned pottery straight from the student kilns of Skidmore College.
Empty Bowls fundraisers are based on a rather symbolic arrangement. People buy a handmade bowl, usually donated by local schools, and fill it with as much soup or chili as they want. The proceeds go toward filling the bowls of the hungry.
It’s a popular type of fundraiser, used by organizations all across the country. In this case, the money stocks shelves at Wilton’s food pantry.
Colin Macnicoll and Hannah Reeves enjoyed some vegetarian chili and a type of soup Reeves couldn’t identify but said was pretty good. The young couple sat right up front by the band, a group of locals playing happy folk-rock under the monicker Trophy Husbands.
“I liked the feel of it in my hands,” Reeves said of her dark reddish choice in ceramics. “It’s not symmetrical, it feels real and handmade.”
“She just wanted a bowl that could fit ice cream,” Macnicoll said with a laugh.
“I need a lot of ice cream,” she said.
The event brought together people of various ages, something Towers said is unusual in Wilton.
“In Wilton, Little Leaguers go to Little League and seniors go to the senior center,” he said.
He also mentioned a widening gap between rich and poor.
“The town of Wilton is considered affluent,” he said, “but 23 percent of our kids are on meal assistance at school.”
Towers and a handful of other concerned citizens dug into Census Bureau and State Department statistics in the months before opening their food pantry. They tracked the number of people on unemployment and kids on meal support, trying to estimate shelf space and food requirements.
They came up with a rather high estimated need.
“Unfortunately,” he said. “Our estimates were right.”
In 2012 alone, the Wilton pantry distributed the equivalent of 24,000 meals, which Towers said is a lot for an affluent town.
“It’s working families,” he said. “The cost of everything is going up. Have you seen the price of beef? They can’t keep up.”
Families are allowed to stock up on three days’ worth of groceries 12 times a year, and a local chef teaches free classes on simple recipes utilizing the pantry’s stock of perishables.
In the process of trying to close the gap between the well-off and the not-so-well-off, Wilton seems to be getting closer as a community, with all groups pitching in to make the event happen, Towers said.
Mitchell Cummings, a lanky 14-year-old Boy Scout, washed more than 300 bowls with his troop as the meal wrapped up.
“Helping out is definitely part of being a scout,” he said. “We did it last year, too.”
In the morning before the event, Towers said a local Girl Scout troop helped volunteers from the senior center pre-wash the bowls and generally get things ready.
The Trophy Husbands, usually known as the John Kribs Band, played the show for a tank of gas to help out the cause. Auction items, from baskets of wine donated by an area liquor store to a pair of vintage Schwinn bikes pitched in by a charitable couple, lined one whole wall. People bid more than things were worth.
By trying to feed the hungry, Towers may have accidentally gotten town residents together.
“It’s a wonderful but unintended consequence,” he said.