A champion’s Thanksgiving message

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Sister Alicia Torres, competing on the cooking show “Chopped.”

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A slip of a woman in a brown cloth habit is Chicago’s latest champion — and one with a message that resonates this Thanksgiving.

Sister Alicia Torres, a 30-year-old Franciscan nun, can be found most days at the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels in the West Humboldt Park neighborhood.

But on Nov. 9, Torres showed up on national TV, winning the “Thanksgiving Souper-Stars” episode of Food Network’s popular “Chopped” series. Competing against three other shelter or mission cooks, Torres took home $10,000 for Our Lady of the Angels Mission by whipping up mostly Thanksgiving fix-ins into dishes fit for rollout by a professional kitchen.

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Her reason for vying on “Chopped” is especially meaningful as many of us give thanks today amid dining tables piled high with the season’s bounty. Her goal, Torres says, was to raise awareness of the state of hunger in Chicago — and to encourage residents to take an active role in combatting it.

Torres’ West Humboldt Park mission is among some 650 programs that work with the Greater Chicago Food Depository to feed the Chicago area’s hungry. Our Lady of the Angels Mission alone helps some 700 families a month. And that work, Torres said, has taught her a compelling fact:

Hunger can be looking you in the face, and you may not recognize it.

At the mission’s summer camp for kids aged 5 to 13, Torres has seen children who appear normal in many ways, until they sit down to a meal. Then, they gulp down far more food than most kids their age.

“Some have two or three plates of pasta because they are so hungry. I am talking about 6-year-olds,’’ Torres said. “They are not complaining about being hungry but you see how they clear their plates. . . .

“There are many hungry people out there, and you can’t tell that by looking at them.”

One in six people in Cook County turns to a food pantry, soup kitchen or hunger-relief program over the course of a year, according to Jim Conwell of the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

That’s some 812,000 Chicago area residents battling “food insecurity.” Day to day, they don’t always know where or when their next meal will be.

Since 2008, before the worst of the recession hit, there’s been a 70 percent rise in the demand for Depository food, Conwell says. Some of that increase may be due to heightened awareness of the program, he says, but “most of it is due to increased need.’’.

Torres is convinced we all have something to contribute to Chicago’s battle against hunger — in what she calls “time, talent or treasure.” That means giving your time as a volunteer at a hunger-relief program. It means offering your talent in the kitchen or elsewhere. It means donating to such programs, in money or — perhaps simplest of all — with non-perishable food.

What can you do?

Email the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels atolamission@gmail.com or call773-486-7431 for information on how to contribute there.

Or, visit the Greater Chicago Food Depository homepage at www.chicagosfoodbank.org or call them at 773-247-FOOD (3663) for ways to help.

More than 225 Depository green-and-white barrels are scattered throughout Chicago, waiting for donations of nutritious, shelf-stable items through Dec. 30. Canned fruit, canned soup, beans, pasta and peanut butter are especially needed.

After all, hunger may be looking you in the face today, tomorrow, and as more days of abundance for many, but far from all, approach.

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