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Duckworth, Rosati’s join in national anti-hunger program

U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth talks Lilah Handler project coordinator for Cooking Matters roundtable discussiTuesday Carpentersville childhood hunger. | ErSauder~For Sun-Times

U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth talks to Lilah Handler, project coordinator for Cooking Matters, at a roundtable discussion Tuesday in Carpentersville on childhood hunger. | Erin Sauder~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 23, 2014 6:36AM

CARPENTERSVILLE — As a child, U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth knew hunger.

After her father lost his job and couldn’t find work for several years, her family relied on food stamps.

“I was a hungry kid. There were many days, were it not for school lunches and school breakfasts, I didn’t eat,” said Duckworth (D-Hoffman Estates). “I was saving the apple and milk from my lunch in my backpack for dinner.”

On Tuesday, childhood hunger was a topic of conversation among Duckworth; Marla Topliff, president of Elgin-based Rosati’s Pizza; and representatives from the national nonprofit Cooking Matters, which provides resources and skills to low-income families to alleviate health and wellness problems associated with poverty.

The group discussed the recent cuts in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and brainstormed about how access to school breakfasts and free meals in the summer can be expanded for children in need.

In 2013, more than 40 Rosati’s restaurants nationwide participated in the annual Share Our Strength’s Dine Out For No Kid Hungry campaign. Through the monthlong initiative held in September, people across the country can dine out at participating restaurants, make a contribution and take advantage of promotions, coupons and rewards in return for doing their part.

The money raised through the No Kid Hungry campaign connects kids in need to nutrition programs such as school breakfasts and summer meals, and Cooking Matters classes.

Tuesday’s briefing was held at the Rosati’s location in Carpentersville, where owners Jaime and Sharon Rodriguez had opted to be a part of last year’s campaign and plan to participate again.

“When we got the newsletter from corporate (Rosati’s), we jumped on board right away,” Sharon Rodriguez said. “No kid should be hungry.”

Topliff said people are unaware of how dire the poverty situation is in America.

“I think if Americans could understand the need in our own country, they would be appalled,” she said. “Children in America are not getting enough food to get through a day of school. And when you send kids to school and they don’t have enough to eat, they can’t concentrate. There’s no way for them to get through the day without being tired. This is a subject that needs to have more public awareness.”

The nearly $9 billion cut means about $90 less in food stamp benefits for many households.

Duckworth represents the 8th Congressional District, which includes Elgin to the west, Wheeling to the north and Lombard to the south. She said the poverty rate in the district increased between 2001 and 2011 from 5.4 percent to 9.3 percent.

“People think of the Chicago suburbs as wealthy,” she said. “But we’ve almost doubled the poverty rate in this district. The suburbs is where you have a lot of food-vulnerable families and people, and people don’t see them. When they picture poverty, they picture people who are hungry in the inner cities.”

Duckworth said with her convening authority, she can “bring people to the table” in order to help find ways to solve the crisis. She also said her staff can seek out grants for organizations such as Cooking Matters and others that will work toward making sure children get the healthy food they need. She suggested public libraries as a means to create awareness about the situation.

Those who met Tuesday agreed awareness is key.

“This is something people need to understand,” Topliff said. “It’s not just another charity. It’s the future of our country.”

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