Scarlett Johansson Feeds Hungry Children

2009 WebMD Health Hero Scarlett Johansson is on a mission to feed hungry kids for a very personal reason. She used to be one of them.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on October 28, 2009
11 min read

Growing up in New York City, the actor and her three siblings, including twin brother Hunter, saw their parents struggle to put food on the table for their large family. "We were a single-income family with four kids living in New York City," she recalls. "My parents tried not to make a big deal of it, but I know it was a struggle for them."

At P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village, Scarlett and her sister and brothers were among the children receiving government-subsidized lunches every day. Even as she was auditioning for film roles, making her debut in the fantasy comedy North, and playing Sean Connery's daughter in Just Cause, Johansson knew her parents were still stretching their funds to make them last to the end of the month. Her dad, an architect, and her mom, who's now her manager, separated when Johansson was 13 and are now divorced.

"Until I was about 12 or so, we never had a bag lunch or anything like that. We always had school lunches," Johansson says. "Looking back at it now, it was the most practical thing for my parents -- they could send us off and not worry. They knew we were fed and educated. So I know firsthand how important these school lunches are for kids."

That's why, when Stan Curtis, who directs the national food charity USA Harvest, approached the star of Lost in Translation and The Other Boleyn Girl about working with a new program that would make sure kids on school lunch programs also got enough food over the weekend, she jumped at the chance.

The program, called Blessings in a Backpack, was launched in 2005 and now feeds 23,600 children in more than 100 U.S. schools. Local volunteers raise money to buy the food at the substantial discounts USA Harvest negotiates, and then they deliver the backpacks every Friday to schools with subsidized-lunch programs in their area. (Want to help feed America's hungry children? Read Scarlett Gives Back to learn how you can donate time, money, and food to make sure kids get the nourishment they need.)

"I think, especially now, a lot of people are struggling financially, and a lot of kids don't know where their next meal is coming from," says the Golden Globe-nominated actor and current face of Dolce & Gabbana ads. "They see their parents trying to scrape together money or welfare or food stamps for meals. For parents to have some relief and know their kids are fed for those extra two days of the week makes a huge difference."

Johansson, who is a recipient of the 2009 WebMD Health Hero Award in recognition of her dedication to feeding in-need children throughout the nation, thinks volunteering with Blessings in a Backpack is a particularly good way for parents to teach their children the importance of serving their communities.

"Kids love to know that they're helping other kids," she says. "It's nice to be able to explain to them that, hey, something we don't really think about -- like when your friends come over on Saturday and we have a barbecue -- is really important to someone else. Not everybody's as fortunate as we are."

Johansson, who will be 25 on Nov. 22, began working with USA Harvest in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when she sought out a charity working in the storm-ravaged Delta. She knew exactly what she wanted. "I was looking for a nongovernmental program that had low administrative costs that I could help with disaster relief," she says. "One of the first things people think about in times of disaster is 'How am I going to feed my family?'"

When she researched USA Harvest, Johansson at first couldn't believe what she learned. The organization, which gathers surplus food donated by restaurants, hotels, and supermarkets and delivers it to local food banks, spends none of the donations it receives on administrative costs.
"I thought, God, this is impossible! It's all-volunteer? How do they do it?"

Johansson soon saw firsthand how it worked in New Orleans, where she went with Curtis to the Made With Love Café & Grill in St. Bernard Parish. Located in the parking lot of an off-track betting parlor, the café was a project of Emergency Communities, an organization that provides community-based disaster relief.

"Emergency Communities normally sets up a site for a couple of months, providing food banks, Internet stations, shower stalls, anything to help people rebuild in the aftermath of a disaster," Johansson explains. "But in New Orleans, they stayed much longer. On our food line, we were feeding people living in FEMA trailers, Red Cross workers, and even people who had pitched tents right on the parking lot and were just living there."

She still recalls one woman she met who'd just lost her restaurant job after the place closed down. "She was completely bewildered," Johansson says. "She had two kids in school, no money and no income, and she was in excruciating pain from dental problems, and the lines for any emergency care were just hours and hours long. It was a disaster. It's so hard to understand how these people could just be overlooked."

Dishing out food at Made With Love -- which served more than 200,000 meals from December 2005 to May 2006 -- Johansson talked to hundreds of people with similar stories.

"I asked them how often they came there, and 90% of the people I served said they came for three meals a day. They had no other way of getting food. I said, 'Stan, this is shocking!' But it's something he sees all the time."

Kids in such families may not look like the familiar image of a starving child, says Deborah Frank, MD, the director of Boston Medical Center's Grow Clinic for Children. But the damage done by regularly missing meals takes its toll on the inside long before it shows on the outside. "In young children especially, the first thing that goes when you're not getting enough to eat is 'discretionary activity,'" Frank explains.

"You can do what you need to survive, but you have no focus or energy left over. It's only when kids are adequately fed, rested, and comfortable that they're learning. So they missed a few meals, what's the big deal? It's a big deal if you want the child to learn something."

Malnutrition in children is surprisingly common in this country. "More than 12 million kids live in households where there's not enough money to buy food," says Joel Berg, head of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and author of All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America? "They're not North Korea or Somalia kind of hungry, but these kids are often going without food." And that was before the full impact of the economic downturn hit. Nationwide, nearly 20 million children receive free or subsidized meals through the National School Lunch Program -- which helps, but it's not enough, says Berg.

If you're a parent, you've probably noticed your child gets cranky and difficult to manage, and has trouble concentrating, without a good breakfast or a snack when it's needed. Now imagine what would happen if your child didn't get enough to eat every day. When children regularly go hungry, it can have a devastating impact on their future. Even low levels of malnutrition at critical periods of growth can harm brain development and make it harder for children to concentrate and do well in school.

According to Berg, undernourished kids are more likely to:

Lag in school. They are more likely to score lower on tests and have to repeat a grade.

Have behavioral problems. Undernourished kids tend to have conduct disorders and mental illness.

Battle suicidal thoughts. Kids who don't get enough to eat are more likely to become suicidal teens.

Get sick. They have higher rates of illnesses such as ear infections and iron deficiency and are more likely to be hospitalized. That's because a child who's not getting enough to eat gets caught in something called the "infection-malnutrition cycle." When children get the flu or an infection, they generally lose weight. "Fever increases their metabolic rate, they feel horrible, and they lose calories with vomiting and diarrhea," says Deborah Frank, MD, of the Boston Medical Center.

"In a privileged household, the child gets over the acute illness, is really hungry, gets seconds and thirds and restores their nutritional status. When food supplies are marginal to begin with, there's no 'extra' to help the child recover. There may be nothing at all, depending on what day of the week it is. So the child stays undernourished, it impairs their immune function, and they're more likely to catch the next infection and down the tubes they go." Frank predicts that many such kids will be the ones showing up in emergency rooms with the most severe cases of H1N1 flu this fall and winter.

Curtis says that Johansson, who's been named to just about every Most Beautiful People list on the planet, "is more beautiful on the inside than she is on the outside. When we go to places like New Orleans, I have to drag her away for her own good or she'd stay talking to people forever. The girl's serious, there's no doubt about that."

That was clear in 2007, when Johansson skipped the Academy Awards to travel to India and Sri Lanka with Oxfam, after learning about the charity while filming the Woody Allen film Match Point in London. She was so overwhelmed by the poverty she saw there, and the determination of oppressed women and girls to make better lives for themselves, that she offered to support four schools in a rural Uttar Pradesh area that educate children from the untouchable Dalit caste. (Only 3% of Dalit women in the province can read or write.)

"Not going to the Oscars got just as much press for Oxfam as I would have for whatever dress I wore on the red carpet," laughs Johansson, who's also been to Rwanda with the (RED) campaign against AIDS, and plans to visit Bangladesh next year with Oxfam.

"It's so difficult to see people who are struggling, but that's part of life. You can't just shut yourself off to things that are unpleasant or hard to talk about. You just have to jump into it with open arms and embrace the humanity of the condition that you're witnessing. It's also incredible to revisit places I've seen in times of devastation and see the money really working, the Lazarus effect. That's when you feel like, OK, I'm doing the right things, I'm involved with the right charities."

For Johansson, even a sneeze is an opportunity to help those charities. During an appearance on The Tonight Show last December, host Jay Leno teased Johansson that the tissue she'd just sniffled into would fetch a pretty penny on eBay. She immediately agreed to sell it -- so long as the proceeds went to USA Harvest. The crumpled tissue, in an autographed plastic baggie, eventually fetched a rather stunning $5,300. (It might have gone for more since Johansson claimed she'd gotten the cold from Samuel L. Jackson while they filmed The Spirit together, giving the tissue a double-celebrity pedigree.)

This 24/7 attitude that infuses Johansson's philanthropic work is something she's learned from her own hero, Bono, who recruited her to work with (RED) the first time they met.

"He's used his star power to be the voice of millions of people, and he incorporates it into everything he does. When he's in concert, he talks to the audience and projects the images of what he's seen in his charity work on a huge screen in front of 25,000 people," she says. "His outreach is huge, and it's constant; it's just a way of life for him."

Even when talking about her latest movie -- Iron Man 2, slated for release in 2010, in which she does all her own stunts as the Russian femme fatale Black Widow opposite Robert Downey Jr. -- Johansson inevitably steers the conversation around to someone else's challenges.

"It was a whole new world for me, but I built a lot of strength, that's for sure. Working on the wires and being suspended in the air, you throw one wrong kick or punch and, yeah, you're out of whack," she says. "But once you're working with the stunt crew and they're going through the craziest stuff, you feel bad about complaining that your knee has been blue for three months. The guys doing the stunts in those Iron Man suits, they can't move in it and can't take it off. I'd say, 'Have you peed today?' and they're like, 'No, we can't move, we can't take it off, we can't drink any water.'"

In September, Johansson auctioned off two tickets to join her on the red carpet for Iron Man 2's April premiere -- all proceeds going to Oxfam. Working on the film was "a total dream come true" for her. "I was such a fan of the first movie," she says. "It's just super action packed, and I'm so geeked out about it. Jon Favreau, the director, is also super geeked out about it, so we're in it together." To demonstrate her geeked-out-ness, Johansson happily joined Favreau to promote the film at the ultimate geekfest, San Diego's Comic-Con, in July.

Johansson, who celebrated the first anniversary of her marriage to actor Ryan Reynolds in September, also has her hand in the music scene. In 2008, she released an album of Tom Waits covers called Anywhere I Lay My Head. This September, she followed that up with Break Up, a nine-song compilation recorded with singer-songwriter Pete Yorn -- recorded in 2006, but not on the shelf until now.

"The story we're telling is about a tumultuous affair, but the music is very upbeat and it's fun for us to perform," she says. "I have crippling stage fright, but Pete's been on tour for his entire life and he totally makes me feel comfortable." Yorn and Johansson made their live debut on French television on September 10, performing the album's first single, "Relator." "Red carpet appearance is WAYYY better," she tweeted the next morning. "I felt amazing but was really nervous."

She doesn't have any other musical projects in the works -- she's busy enough with film projects already, having signed to play Black Widow again in Favreau's next Marvel film, The Avengers. "It's something that's as much work as writing and producing a film, so for me, it would be all-encompassing." But it would be great to do a musical movie, she speculates, declaring her fondness for the all-musical episode of Seth MacFarlane's Family Guy.

"That genre is having a bit of a moment right now with the success of Hairspray and Chicago. I love musicals, so for me that would be a real dream."

Whatever she does next, odds are Johansson will find some way to make it pay off for USA Harvest, (RED), Oxfam, or one of her other charities. "If you already have the spotlight shining on you, it's great to direct that toward a cause you believe in and that you can stand behind. It's nice to be a voice for people who don't have a voice."