Viola Davis Wants to Help Food-Poor Kids: 'Growing Up With Hunger Was My Biggest Source of Shame'
Childhood hunger hits close to home for Viola Davis.
The Oscar winner, 55, who grew up in poverty, is working with No Kid Hungry to bring awareness to the hunger crisis during the coronavirus pandemic.
“This was an issue before COVID," she tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "It’s just that stakes are much higher now because people have been out of work and challenged in terms of their finances, their house, everything. Our scourge is childhood hunger. Food banks that were designated to serve maybe 200 families are now serving 600."
The program's 2020 report, The Longest Summer: Childhood Hunger In The Wake of Coronavirus, found that half of American families are living with hunger and the numbers are worse among Black and Latinx people. "When all your money goes towards your rent, you don't have anything leftover or you never had it to begin with," Davis says. "It's not just the scourge of kids who are growing up in poverty, it's also the working poor. We have a problem."
Davis' own experiences with hunger growing up have instilled a deep need to help others and promote awareness as well.
"I got a scholarship when I was really young to an acting school and I never had any money for food," Davis recalls. "Every once in a while, I would bring maybe a bologna sandwich with mayonnaise and I would be so happy. The kids at that school were at the very, very least upper middle class and I remember eating the sandwich and one of the kids going, 'Oh, that is so disgusting.' There needs to be empathy and education in understanding the struggles of many of your fellow Americans especially now."
As for how people can help, Davis suggests to "give of your time and money, but the big thing here is to vote," she says. "SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] and WIC vouchers are the healing elixir for families that are food-poor. And these programs are being challenged."
The annual report also uncovered that more than 50% of parents are now skipping meals for themselves or limiting food for people in the family so their kids can eat while almost 40% are not paying bills as often to make sure there is food on the table. "Growing up with hunger was my biggest source of shame," Davis admits. "It affected my sense of value, my sense of worth. I just felt like there was no one else who had that issue. And the fact that I did, made me weak, even though I had no control over it."
Now the actress is teaching her daughter Genesis, 10, with her husband Julius Tennon, the importance of self-empowerment. "I encourage her to use any source of expression, whether it’s TikTok, painting, taking pictures," Davis adds. "I said, 'Anything about yourself, even the things that you don’t think people will love about you, all of it makes up your beauty.' I don’t want her to grow up with any shame."
For more of Davis' exclusive interview, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday.
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