Scarlett Johansson discovered her passion for feeding the hungry after Hurricane Katrina, when she started working with USA Harvest in New Orleans. Several years later, Stan Curtis, who founded USA Harvest, asked her if she wanted to help promote a new program called Blessings in a Backpack. The idea was to send kids who received subsidized school lunches home for the weekend with backpacks filled with food for them and their families. Johansson leapt at the chance.
"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," Johansson says in the November/December 2009 issue of WebMD the Magazine. "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."
To honor her work with Blessings in a Backpack, WebMD the Magazine named Johansson a 2009 WebMD Health Hero winner. She and Stan Curtis -- also a WebMD Health Hero winner -- donated WebMD’s $5,000 donation to the program to fund more local programs across the country. "If you already have the spotlight shining on you, it's great to direct that toward a cause you believe in," Johansson tells WebMD the Magazine. "It's nice to be a voice for people who don't have a voice."
Malnutrition in children is surprisingly common in this country. According to the nonprofit organization Feed the Children, more than 12 million kids live in households that lack sufficient money to buy food. Nationwide, nearly 20 million children receive free or subsidized meals through the National School Lunch Program.
Do you want to join Johansson and Curtis and help feed hungry children in your neighborhood? Lots of people feel inspired to help the hungry by serving at a soup kitchen over the holidays. While that's well-intentioned, says Joel Berg, author of All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America?, you can make much more of a difference in other ways.
Start a local Blessings in a Backpack group. Contact Blessings in a Backpack (1-800-USA-4FOOD) for materials and info on how to get started in your community. Then research local schools with free/reduced price meal programs, and identify local supporters to raise funds to help buy food at a discount. Just $80 provides one child with backpacks full of food for a year! Once you have your volunteers and funds, call Blessings and they'll help you set up your program.
Donate to food banks. If you can't spare the time to start a program, donate directly to Blessings, your local community food bank, or Feeding America, the national umbrella group of food banks. Donating canned goods is helpful, but money is even more so, says Berg. "These groups can buy food at a discount, so where you can buy one can of food with your dollar, they can buy three."
Volunteer your expertise. "If you have rudimentary accounting knowledge and can help a small volunteer agency use a spreadsheet, five hours of that does more to fight hunger than five months of serving soup," says Berg. "Help them start a website or write grant applications; that's something they desperately need and never have enough people for."
Support national legislative efforts to end hunger. The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 (S. 771 and H.R. 1363) will be up for review again in 2010. (WIC stands for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.) These programs fund a number of efforts to protect children from hunger, including child care and after-school snacks, meals for low-income pregnant women, and coupons that can be used at farmers' markets. You can urge your senators and representatives to support expanded access to the programs at Feeding America's Hunger Action Center.
Curtis says that efforts to feed a community's children do far more than just ease hunger. "Principals at the schools we work with say that they are seeing parents who've never visited their school before, wanting to know who cares enough about their children that they're feeding their kids," he recounts.