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Thousands gather to fill empty bowls, and coffers, for St. Vincent de Paul

It wasn't exactly "soup weather," but despite warm, spring-like temperatures, long lines formed at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium on Saturday afternoon for people craving a bowl of something hot.

Some 2,000 people were expected to turn out for the 11th annual Empty Bowls fundraiser, hosted by St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore to benefit the region's hungry.

"It's symbolic of the empty bowls in Baltimore," said Christine Runion, a St. Vincent de Paul spokeswoman.

Diners paid $25 to enter the fairgrounds exhibition hall and sample soups donated by 18 area restaurants and caterers — each brought between 30 and 60 gallons.

About 150 volunteers were on hand to serve up the soup. Some of varieties scooped up quickly included potato bacon chowder from Cunningham's restaurant of Towson, jalapeno corn chowder from Nacho Mama's of Baltimore and Maryland crab soup from Atlantic Caterers.

Along with unlimited soup, diners chose from nearly 2,000 handmade bowls of all shapes and sizes, created and decorated by volunteers from schools throughout the Baltimore area as well as Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, businesses and church organizations.

Runion acknowledged the help of those who make the bowls — which has come to be a symbol of the Empty Bowls fundraiser. She said some groups were dropping off their ceramic creations up until the start of Saturday's event.

The event raises about $165,000, and is one of the largest annual fundraisers for St. Vincent de Paul, a nonprofit that runs the Beans & Bread, a soup kitchen on South Bond Street in the city.

The organization, which dates to the 1860s, also operates shelters for the homeless and transitional housing, and provides employment training and early-childhood education programs.

Runion said one in eight people in Maryland goes hungry every day, and Baltimore has the state's highest number of residents who are hungry. About 25 percent of the city lives in a food desert, she said, meaning they lack access to grocery stores to purchase affordable food.

St. Vincent de Paul "helps a lot of needy people," said Denise Ford Brown, 63, who worked for the organization for 18 years as a literacy instructor, case manager and in other roles.

On Saturday, she and her friend, Mary Middleton, 73, also from Baltimore, were enjoying a cup of the Maryland crab soup.

"We always go for the Maryland crab soup," said Ford Brown — though they also tried a creamy potato bacon from the Copper Kitchen.

They each had a new bowl to take home. Ford Brown picked a solid-brown bowl "to go with my collection," she said, while Middleton chose a blue and white square bowl she planned to use for candy during the holidays.

Stephen Bitzelberger, wearing a black-and-orange Orioles T-shirt and baseball cap, carefully scanned the table of assorted bowls. He considered an orange-and-black one to support his favorite team.

"It's a strong contender," said Bitzelberger, 33, who lives in Abingdon. But he continued searching to find a suitable bowl for his wife. She didn't attend, but he planned to bring a bowl home to her.

"It's a little warm for soup today," he said. But, he added, "It's a really good cause."

Bitzelberger came to the fairgrounds with his parents. His mother, Janet Bitzelberger, said the event was a chance to "give back," and enjoy a bowl of classic Maryland crab soup.

Stephen Bitzelberger said he was more of a cream of crab man. His father, Charles, preferred to stay neutral — he said he liked a combination of the two.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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