Viola Davis Works to End Childhood Hunger

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on October 02, 2017
8 min read

Viola Davis

When Viola Davis reflects on her childhood, one of the strongest emotions that comes flooding back to her is shame.

“All the gifts I had as a child were basically squelched,” says the How to Get Away with Murder star, whose extraordinary performances in film, television, and theater have earned her acting’s triple crown: two Tonys, an Emmy, and most recently, an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her gut-wrenchingly raw and honest portrayal of Rose Maxson in August Wilson’s Fences. In May 2017, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Davis grew up in poverty in Central Falls, RI, a former mill town. “Being desperately hungry made me feel a great sense of shame,” Davis says. “I would come to school and all I wanted was a meal. I couldn’t focus. But I couldn’t tell anyone that. It’s a reflection on you, your parents. People only want you to share stories about winning and about success, and anything else is not acceptable. So I hid. I went inside myself.”

That’s why Davis has dedicated her spare time -- although it’s hard to imagine that the actor, who also runs a production company, JuVee Productions, with husband, Julius Tennon, has much of that -- to the organization Hunger Is, which aims to eradicate childhood hunger by increasing access to free or reduced-priced school breakfasts and “backpack” programs that provide kids with food for the weekend.

“We now know that 1 in 5 children lives in a home without consistent access to the food they need,” says Davis, who signed on as an ambassador for Hunger Is 3 years ago and regularly appears in public service announcements and other campaigns for the program. Over the last 3 years, Hunger Is has raised more than $18 million and awarded more than 270 grants to support local hunger programs in 33 states plus the District of Columbia.

“Three in every 4 teachers say that kids are regularly coming into their classroom hungry. My sister Deloris [Davis Grant, who teaches English in their hometown] is one of those teachers,” Davis says. “She says she has kids who are falling asleep from the moment they walk into her class, and they whisper to her, ‘Ms. Grant, I’m hungry.’ She has a closet with snacks for kids who haven’t eaten; she’ll go and get them groceries.”

Davis praises New York City schools, which this year announced they would provide free lunch to all city students, eliminating the stigma and shame often felt by kids who receive subsidized meals. However, a new survey of 50 large school districts released by the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) in September shows that New York and a few other cities, like Boston, Chicago, Dallas, and Detroit, are still relatively alone on this -- only eight of the districts FRAC surveyed offered free lunch to all students, and few districts have policies that prevent school staff from humiliating or even denying meals to children who cannot pay.

“I want what they’ve done in New York to happen everywhere, in every city and every town and every school,” Davis says. “We have an idea of an America in which no one is struggling to that degree; we put that on third world countries. But there’s a whole subculture in this country of people who are struggling, who are hungry, who have nothing. And if we are to put an end to this, first hunger has to be destigmatized.”

Davis first revealed her own childhood story in a riveting speech at Variety’s Power of Women event in 2014, breaking into tears as she described stealing food and pulling scraps covered with maggots out of garbage bins.

“It was a great relief to say that,” she says now. “Standing in a room full of 20,000 people in a convention hall and saying I was one of those kids. It was cathartic for me. And my work on this issue is probably one of the greatest things I’ve done in my life. It’s been the greatest journey for me to be able to give this gift to kids who are like I was.”

The long-term effects of not knowing where your next meal is coming from can wear on a child, says John Cook, MD, associate professor of pediatrics at Boston University Medical Center and an expert on the effects of hunger and food insecurity with Children’s HealthWatch.

“Being hungry on any given day is just part of the problem,” Cook explains. “The stress of being chronically hungry and anxious about getting food builds up over time, leading to what we call ‘allostatic load’ -- basically, wear and tear on the body and the brain. This affects a child’s social and emotional development and how they respond to their teachers and other children. It can lead to things like hyperreactivity -- if another child bumps into them in line, they might respond aggressively instead of just taking it in stride.”

Davis didn’t feel truly free of the specter of hunger until she entered Rhode Island College on a full scholarship. “I finally had three meals a day, and trust me, I didn’t miss any of them!” she says. “Every month when we got our food stamps, my mother would do a big grocery run, but there were six of us kids and in 2 weeks the food would be gone, so we’d have to figure out how to survive for the next 2 weeks. That stays with you. So by the time I got to college, I ate everything. They talk about the freshman 15? I had the freshman 30 or 40! There was just this constant fear in my head that someone was going to take it away.”

Today, more than 30 years later, Davis says that she’s still learning important lessons about her own health and self-care. “It’s a 24-7 job, I’ll tell you that,” she says. “And it’s completely on you. You’re the only one who knows how you feel. Especially now that I’ve turned 52, I’m very aware of my body’s limitations. I’m not trying to be 28. I’m trying to be a very healthy 52-year-old woman and be OK with that.”

Working with a trainer, she’s focused on isometric exercises along with strength and endurance training. “It involves very little cardio, not bringing up your heart rate way too high for your age or pounding your body like a 20 year old,” she says. “I’ve been able to change my body and feel good doing it.”

Self-care also involves plenty of sleep. “If I come home and I feel like, ‘I’ve gotta do this and I’ve gotta do that,’ I tell myself that the thing I really have to do is sleep,” Davis says. “It’s helped with my energy and helped with my weight.” Davis and her husband also try to set aside time for quiet retreats -- visits to spas, walks by the ocean, or just staying home for a calm, peaceful weekend. “I’m always looking for what’s going to fill my spirit, like praying and meditating, because your health does not only extend to your physical body. I work on letting go of anger and issues with people. That’s been a big lesson with speaking out about the whole hunger thing too -- owning your story. I don’t want to die with a lot of secrets, and opening up has really helped with my health.”

In that way, Davis says, the life of her Murder character, Annalise Keating, mirrors her own. Unlike Davis, whose skyrocketing career is accompanied by a blissful home life with Tennon and their 6-year-old daughter Genesis, Annalise ended the third season of the show seeming to have lost everything. But, says Davis, “Like me, she’s trying to deal with her secrets. She’s trying to get better. She’s a full-blown alcoholic who is on the road to recovery, and in this fourth season we are going to see how she chooses to dig herself out.”

She teases viewers that new cast member Jimmy Smits, playing Annalise’s therapist, will take the show down interesting paths. “He’s got secrets of his own, and Annalise is terrified as to what those secrets could be,” she says. “We’ve just finished filming episode 7, and things have taken a turn that I literally don’t know where he’s going, and I don’t think he’s going to tell me.”

After decades of stellar work in theater, television, and film -- and a childhood spent trying to hide -- Davis has reached the point where she fully believes in her right to a place at the table. “I deserve to be here. What I write, what I create is deserving of being produced and promoted,” she says. “And I want people to understand that when we talk about women not getting work, and not getting paid what we deserve to be paid, there are two different narratives here -- women and women of color. Women of color are fighting to be recognized the same way Caucasian women are.

“That’s why I fight so hard even with Annalise. I want her to be a full woman. I am interested in her having no boundaries, exploring her sexuality, her pathology, her mess. It’s a metaphor for what I’m going through as an actor of color, believing that the full scope of my imagination and talent needs to be honored.”

And as she works to ensure that children today will not have to endure the deprivations that she did as a child, she feels she’s opening the way for their gifts and potential to blossom as well.

“It’s been a true sign of my life coming full circle,” Davis says.

Does your school provide free breakfasts and lunches for all kids, regardless of income? If it doesn’t, campaigning to change that is one way that you can make a powerful contribution toward ending childhood hunger and making sure that all kids in your community can learn and succeed.

“We know that school breakfast and lunch programs can really improve children’s performance in school,” Cook says. “That body of evidence is strong and getting stronger every day. We don’t have to tolerate kids not being able to learn in school because they’re hungry. This is a problem that has very effective solutions.”

A few other benefits of school breakfast:

The power of breakfast: Kids participating in school breakfast programs show improvements on everything from math scores to depression, anxiety, and hyperactivity. After a pilot program in Pennsylvania implemented a universal school breakfast in certain schools, children reported that they felt eating breakfast increased their energy and ability to pay attention in school.

Showing up: When schools provide students with breakfast in the classroom, attendance goes up while tardy rates and disciplinary referrals go down. When asked what would happen if his school in Murray, NY, stopped offering classroom breakfast, one student said, “I would fall asleep in class like I used to.”

Part of a normal day: Student math and reading achievement test scores improve when breakfast is moved out of the cafeteria and into the classroom. “‘After the bell’ breakfast programs are particularly good,” Cook says, “because many children don’t get to school in time to have breakfast before the routines start. Having breakfast after the bell in the classroom as part of the normal day can be much more effective, and it also eliminates stigma when it’s made available to all children.”

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