One in five children in New Jersey doesn't have enough to eat at home, but at least one school has recognized the need to step up and make a difference.

On a recent Sunday, about 400 people entered the cafeteria of Linwood's Seaview Elementary School for the area's first ever Empty Bowls day.

The do-it-yourself event, an idea created by the Imagine Render Group, is an international grassroots movement to fight hunger, the event's coordinator Kim Petrella said.

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The event calls on artists and groups to create ceramic bowls, followed by serving a simple meal to the community. In exchange for the meal and the bowl, guests contribute a minimum donation of $10, Petrella, an art teacher at Seaview, said. Proceeds will benefit the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, Southern Branch.

"I've wanted to do one for a while," the Linwood resident said after the March 3 event, thrilled by the success at her first run.

Her son, Matt, 18, and his friend, Ryan Gerace, 18, both seniors at St. Augustine Preparatory School in Buena Vista Township, were required to complete 100 hours of community service for school. At Petrella's request, the three joined forces in order to make the event happen, she said.

Matt Petrella and Gerace prepared letters to send to local schools and organizations. Local parents offered to donate soups to sample - everything from traditional chicken noodle to the big hit of the day, chicken pot pie. And area restaurants - including Charlie's Bar, Gregory's, Doc's Place, The Anchorage, Ventura's, Sofia Restaurant and La Pizzatega - offered bowls of their various selections.

But while Petrella speculated that every guest left with a full belly, her son hoped that everyone left with some knowledge of the plight that even people in Linwood face.

"People don't realize that (childhood hunger) is actually here (in our hometown)," Matt Petrella said.

Initially, the startling news came as a surprise to the teenage boys - and so it became their platform.

"They wanted to work in their own backyard," Petrella said.

Since October, Petrella organized groups of students to meet after school in order to mold, glaze and paint individual bowls for the March event. Of the 449 bowls that were ready for sale, 80 were donated by nearby Egg Harbor Township's art teacher Jason Elia.

Nearing the end of the three-hour event, a mere 30 were left over, Petrella said.

"There were more people than I could have imagined," she said. "So many people that I've never met were walking through the doors. It was awesome."

Earlier in the school year, Petrella oversaw her school compete in the statewide competition, Students Change Hunger, organized by the New Jersey Federation of Food Banks to raise awareness of hunger in New Jersey. She hopes to keep up the initiative, potentially combining it with Empty Bowls in the future.

"The feedback was amazing," she said, adding that nearby schools have already approached her regarding a prospective collaboration.

A bake sale, coordinated by local parent, Catherine Evinski, also raised money for the cause that day. More than $6,000, including a donation from the staff of Seaview Elementary School, was to be given to the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, Southern Branch.

The food bank's executive director Margie Barham was honored to be chosen as the event's beneficiary.

"We are thrilled that these students have recognized the need to help others," she said. "We look forward to working with and through them so we can reduce the number of hungry children in the future."

Contact Caitlin Honan:


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