Few Columbians are aware that our Capital City is the birthplace of the Souper Bowl of Caring, a nonprofit that has generated more than $170 million in food and donations to fight hunger nationwide. In fact, according to Dr. Traci Cooper, director of strategic partnerships for Richland County School District One and a Souper Bowl of Caring board member, “It should be a point of great pride for all South Carolinians that the Souper Bowl of Caring was founded in 1990 in Richland County.”
Its founder, however, the Rev. Brad Smith of Columbia, is quite humble about beginning a nationwide nonprofit that to date has involved more than 300,000 groups and mobilized more than two million young people to combat hunger. According to Brad, “It all began in 1989 with a simple prayer at Spring Valley Presbyterian Church: ‘Lord, even as we enjoy the Super Bowl football game, help us be mindful of those who are without a bowl of soup to eat.’”
As a seminary intern at the time, Brad was seeking ways to encourage the youth at his church to think beyond themselves. The seed of this prayer germinated, and the impact of Hurricane Hugo in 1989 further expanded the youths’ awareness of the needs of others. In February 1990, as the nation prepared for the Super Bowl, the youth at Spring Valley Presbyterian Church prepared to help ease hunger by asking individuals to give a dollar or a canned good. Large soup pots were used to collect the donations.
As their youthful energy ignited, friends contacted friends. The word spread throughout Columbia, and 22 churches in the Midlands joined in this effort. The first Souper Bowl of Caring raised $5,700.
“We then developed our idea into a ‘turnkey resource’ for churches and were able to partner with the South Carolina Christian Action Council,” Brad says. “The next step was to approach denominational magazines. Over the next four years, the participating churches grew from 22 to 885 churches across 35 states.”
As the possibilities continued to expand, so did the generosity of Columbians and South Carolinians. Vicki Johnson, Jerry Olsen, Frank Imhoff, and Anne and Dan Fletcher (and many others) at Spring Valley Presbyterian Church designed graphics, developed a database long before email, and helped with mailings and communications. Legal issues were addressed pro bono by Gus Dixon of Nelson Mullins. The generosity and volunteer efforts were astounding.
“Every dollar raised, every can collected, was donated to fight hunger. Thus arose the problem of money for operating a nonprofit,” Brad recounts. Fortuitously, donors were moved by the success and potential power of the Souper Bowl of Caring. John Wright of Virginia and his wife, Trula, a native Columbian, stepped forward to provide funding for an office. Others provided funds for staffing. Cary Smith of IBM, W.W. “Hootie” Johnson of Bank of America, and Charlotte and Bill Cassels of Southeastern Freight Lines provided wise counsel, astute insights, and contacts for support. The chairmen and members of the board of the Souper Bowl of Caring gave selflessly of their talents, acumen, and time.
In 1997-1998, the Souper Bowl of Caring raised $1 million to fight hunger. Reaching this milestone gave the Souper Bowl of Caring greater visibility and fueled its vision. Brad received the Order of the Palmetto from the State of South Carolina and the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award from The University of South Carolina.
While receiving the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award, Brad met Carolina alumni Robert McNair, owner of the Houston Texans. This introduction opened a new chapter for the Souper Bowl of Caring. Janice and Bob McNair lent their names to the Souper Bowl of Caring. Ultimately, their great generosity and that of their foundation provided a home for the headquarters of the Souper Bowl of Caring in Texas. President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush also graciously supported the nonprofit during this time.
With a greater national presence, the Souper Bowl of Caring was able to continue its mission of mobilizing youth, schools, and congregations to raise awareness and funds for the hungry while expanding other avenues to promote its mission. Alison Reese, the current executive director of the Souper Bowl of Caring says, “While the Souper Bowl of Caring continues its original mission of challenging everyone to donate a dollar or a can to a local charity, it has naturally evolved in unimagined ways. Brad’s prayer resonated not only with youth, but with seniors and a host of other volunteers and groups.”
For several years, grocery stores in Texas became deeply involved in promoting the Souper Bowl of Caring. With extensive television and media coverage, substantial funds were raised. Sadly, this ended as the pandemic resulted in interrupted supply chains and forced lockdowns and shutdowns. As Traci Cooper says, “The pandemic peeled back a sore scab on our American consciousness about food insecurity.”
As the news showcased miles of cars waiting in line at food banks and school buses in rural South Carolina dropping off meals instead of children, the reality of hunger and food insecurity became more visible than ever. Traci says, “In South Carolina, we have children who depend on their schools for three meals a day — so when the schools closed there was anxiety and some panic for families and many charities.” This need underscored the importance of the Souper Bowl of Caring, which ignites America’s youth to tackle hunger.
In 2021, as the impact of the pandemic deepened, Eastminster Presbyterian Church, with Brad Smith as its senior pastor and a Souper Bowl of Caring Board member, boldly began a “Million Dollar Campaign” to fight hunger in South Carolina. Churches, community groups, and leaders across the state were encouraged to donate generously to support their local food pantries and charities as part of the Souper Bowl of Caring. Eastminster offered to donate one dollar for every six dollars in goods or cash donated.
Bold as this was, with many churches and schools locked down and meeting virtually, more than $670,000 in cash and food was collected by more than 350 organizations across South Carolina. Brad says, “Groups from Hemingway, Hilton Head, Honea Path, Hartsville, and Huger joined the effort, as did people from Pamplico, Pickens, and Pomaria. Mother Emmanuel AME in Charleston, Mauldin Christian Academy, and Mountains to Midlands Girl Scout Troop 3298 provide a sampling of the groups that opened their hearts and hands to neighbors in need.”
Almost $400,000 went to local charities, including Harvest Hope, Richland District One’s backpack program, Oliver Gospel Mission, Transitions, Home Works, and others. According to Erin Rowe, CEO of Harvest Hope, “Each day, one in six South Carolinians is unsure of where their next meal is going to come from, and the support from the Souper Bowl of Caring, local churches, schools, and communities is critical in the fight against hunger. We are so thankful for the generous support after the busy holiday season that allows us to restock our shelves.”
The Million Dollar Challenge also raised consciousness across South Carolina to the plight of hunger, which not only physically hurts but can scar lives forever. David Beasley, former governor of South Carolina and now director of the World Food Bank, endorsed this effort as did former Gov. and U.S. Secretary of Education Dick Riley. Molly Spearman, superintendent of education, also supported this project. These leaders, among many others, are all too familiar with the destructive impact of food insecurity among South Carolina’s vulnerable populations.
Nationally, the Souper Bowl of Caring also boldly met the challenges posed by the pandemic. The Department of Defense needed a nationwide map of food pantries and soup kitchens in order to mobilize National Guard units across America to support food distribution. The Souper Bowl of Caring was approached about helping and went into action. According to Alison, “There was no national database of food charities, and many are quite small church-based efforts.”
By recruiting AmeriCorps volunteers, the Souper Bowl of Caring responded to the request and needs of the Department of Defense and created a first ever “Tackle Hunger Map.” By keying in a ZIP code on the Tackle Hunger Map website (Map.TackleHunger.org), individuals and organizations can locate the closest food bank or charity for assistance or to make a donation. According to Alison, this tool is being used by a host of groups and individuals. She reports that even hospitals are finding this map useful in identifying assistance for the elderly who need nutritional and hydration support as they are released from hospitals and rehabilitation centers.
In fact, the Souper Bowl of Caring’s national website has proven to be an invaluable tool and has received 26 billion page views. This staggering number reflects the growing virtual presence of the Souper Bowl of Caring across America. Furthermore, the use of data analysis of web views indicates that only 50 percent of the groups participating in the Souper Bowl of Caring are reporting to the national website the funds raised locally. While the Souper Bowl of Caring can accurately report that more than $170 million in cash and goods has been generated over the last 30 years, the actual figure may be far greater.
Alison muses on the many ways that the Souper Bowl of Caring has evolved as situations have changed. School pantries have become increasingly needed. Schools are also providing “backpack programs” to support the neediest children on weekends and holidays. Many of these efforts are dependent on the Souper Bowl of Caring campaigns, which replenishes food pantries. She points out that the post-holiday season, about the time of the Super Bowl, is a particularly vulnerable time for the food insecure nationwide, as the holiday spirit wanes and pantries and donations resources run low.
As the Souper Bowl of Caring continues its efforts to address hunger across America, Alison also reports that a recent survey by the Souper Bowl of Caring “found that almost half of student athletes in high schools struggle with food insecurity.” In response, “The Souper Bowl of Caring is excited to partner with the National Football League Alumni to #tacklehunger to support families who are struggling with food insecurity.” Through the Tackle Hunger Challenge, high schools are encouraged to support a school pantry or support a food drive. The partnership with the NFL Alumni will surely strengthen this effort.
Who could have imagined that a simple prayer among a small group of teenagers more than 30 years ago could make such a difference? Millions of meals provided. Millions of people of all ages tackling the insidious reality that one in six Americans faces food insecurity. Offering hope and the cup of kindness, these volunteers have opened, and continue to open, the doors of new possibilities for those in need. They are changing the lives of others, and in so doing, they, too, are changed. In Brad Smith’s words, “The Souper Bowl of Caring is the story of the Providence of God.”
Editor’s note: With one in every six South Carolinians facing hunger or food insecurity, Super Bowl Sunday 2022 provides the opportunity to #tacklehunger. Individuals, congregations, schools, and organizations are encouraged to collect canned goods and funds. The Tackle Hunger map at TackleHunger.org allows groups and individuals to donate 100 percent of the proceeds to the charity of one’s choice. Additionally, Eastminster Presbyterian Church will again offer matching funds. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.