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Feeding America

Intro: Meet Leighton Meester

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One in five people relied on a charitable food program last year. We repeat: one in five. Next time you step outside, take a look around you and replay that figure in your head—on your commute, during errands, at drop-off or at work. Every day, you interact with people who could be struggling to put food on the table—and you wouldn't even know it. In the U.S., that's 38 million people, including 12 million children.

Leighton Meester was one of those kids. Yes, Leighton Meester, the actress and singer, tony Blair Waldorf of Gossip Girl fame. Before a life in the klieg lights, before the 6 million Instagram followers, before the glamorous photo shoots and red carpet walks with husband (and fellow actor) Adam Brody, Meester grew up relying on welfare and food stamps. She experienced the stark reality of hunger that so many face today–and came out of it a stronger, more empowered individual, one who's transformed this difficult period of her life into a positive one. "It's made me who I am," says Meester. "Now, I'm much more grateful for everything I have, and it's important for me to use whatever channels I have to bring awareness to this cause."

Pulls the rug from under any preconceived notions of poverty and hunger, doesn't it? “Be part of the discussion,” she adds, “and help take the stigma away.”

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Leighton Meester, our #VBGIVESBACK woman of the quarter

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We're proud to name Meester as our #VBGIVESBACK woman of the quarter and, through the end of the year, will be donating proceeds from every single veronicabeard.com/en-tc order to her charity of choice, Feeding America®, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization. The first food bank was established in the late 1960's and, as other food banks started cropping up, Feeding America was established. Today, the nonprofit's scope is tremendous: a powerful and efficient network of 200 food banks across the U.S., reaching into the most remote and in-need communities.

"[Food insecurity] doesn't just impact the health of the individual, but the overall wellbeing," Meester explains. "Children from food-insecure households have a harder time concentrating in class. They struggle in school… Every donation counts. Something as little as a dollar—which helps provide at least 10 meals secured by Feeding America on behalf of local member food banks—can make a huge difference and affect change." Learn more in our exclusive with Meester here.

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“I thought (pantries) were for people who were less fortunate, but anybody could be less fortunate in a day or in a second.”— Courtney James and daughter at Feed More in Richmond, VA

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Q&A

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Feeding America is…
The nation's largest domestic hunger relief and food rescue organization. It's a network of 200 food banks—the regional distribution warehouses for the food—and 60,000 agencies and meal programs that, together, work with volunteers, donors, faith-based organizations and charitable partners to provide meals to tens of millions of people each year.

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How did you first become involved?
Five years ago, I volunteered at Feeding America's Summer Hunger Awareness event in LA. Adam and I went downtown to the Para Los Niños Charter School and served meals to the kids. It was really fun. The most memorable part was really just hanging out and interacting with them. It was exciting and also a bit intimidating because they're so much more honest than adults are!
Since then, I have continued to be involved. We've served meals at the Downtown Women's Center in LA and, while my husband was doing a show in Puerto Rico, helped at a food bank in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Those face-to-face moments are really the most rewarding and enlightening. You can see how Feeding America makes a difference in people's lives.

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Why is this cause such a crucial one?
In the last year, with the pandemic, one in five people in the U.S. turned to a food bank, a food pantry or other private charitable food programs for help. That's at least 60 million people–a 50% increase from the previous year—who are relying on the charitable food sector to make ends meet. These are your neighbors, coworkers, friends, classmates… Some have been struggling for years; for others, the COVID crisis has upended their household budget, with lost wages or reduced hours. People you know and interact with every day may be struggling with food insecurity.
With a lot of schools being closed, that's also increased the need for additional food at home, too. Parents are having to choose between buying food or medicine, or paying utilities or rent. This year alone, nearly 12 million children—1 in every 6 kids—may not know where they will get their next meal. I remember what that was like. To be able to sit down and enjoy a meal with your family—all mothers deserve that.

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Leighton Meester and her husband, Adam Brody, volunteering at St. Ferdinand in LA for Feeding America

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People may not realize that food insecurity is much more than not having food…
That's right. It doesn't just impact the health of the individual, but the overall wellbeing. Children from food-insecure households have a harder time concentrating in class. They struggle in school. They're more likely to repeat a grade in elementary school, have more social and behavioral problems and even experience developmental impairments in areas like language and motor skills.
This affects adults too—those with mental health conditions are almost 5 times more likely to live in a food-insecure household as compared to adults without a mental health condition.

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What kind of support does Feeding America provide?
The scope is so great. Feeding America is really a wonderful organization. It provides food assistance to all 50 states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico. And it's really embedded in the communities it serves and provides aid during national disasters, like Hurricanes Katrina and Maria, but also throughout the year, helping families going through their own personal crises and ensuring they have a variety of healthy and nutritious food.
Feeding America also connects families to programs that provide additional support, like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), offers training programs for warehouse employment or culinary programs and nutritional education outreach. And it has a research department that looks at the impact of food insecurity—for instance, the Map the Meal Gap study, which creates a model of food insecurity rates for every county in the U.S., using data from the USDA, Census Bureau and unemployment, housing and food price indexes. Local and state governments use this map to identify the issues in their community so they can work toward a solution.

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Tell us about the focus on healthy food…
The organization doesn't just provide food—it provides nourishment. A lot of times people think of canned goods when they think of food drives and donations. They don't realize that a lot of the food Feeding America distributes is fresh and perishable product. Last year, more than two-thirds of the food distributed was what you would classify as promoting good health, like produce and proteins. And it's important to point out that food banks aren't just tackling health disparities, but they're also tackling food deserts in communities without healthy food options. They send refrigerated trucks filled with fresh produce and protein and set up a distribution site.

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The long lines for East Texas Food Bank's weekly drive-thru distribution at the East Texas State Fairgrounds in Tyler, TX

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Could you share some of its milestone moments through the years?
I think the most important milestone was this past fiscal year—Feeding America provided 6.6 billion meals to people in need. And that's billion, with a B. That's the most it's ever distributed.

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How has Feeding America had to pivot with COVID?
The pandemic has impacted every food bank in the network. Every food bank saw an increase in demand for food and staff. In a typical disaster, neighboring food banks are able to send support, but that was not the case with COVID—every single food bank needed help. The supply chain was affected as well. Think back to the beginning of the pandemic when grocery-store shelves were empty…
It also needed to adjust the distribution model. Typically a family will go into a pantry and select the food they need. There's a lot of face-to-face interaction, which, obviously, we couldn't do because of COVID. So they shifted to drive-throughs and grab-and-go models to limit potential exposure. They had to deal with a decrease in volunteers, too. They usually have over 2 million volunteers a month, but a lot of the groups they lean on, like senior volunteers, stayed home to stay safe. So they hired temp workers, developed partnerships with local restaurants and received help from the National Guard. In the midst of all these challenges, food banks never closed their doors.

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A scene from the Ephesus Food Pantry in Richmond, Virginia

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What other challenges is Feeding America facing?
The pandemic has really shown that there is a widening racial divide with food insecurity. A recent USDA report showed that the rates of food security for Black and Latino households increased while rates for white households decreased. To address this hunger divide, Feeding America established a food security equity impact fund, which was seeded with $20 million, to go out to communities of color. It's also addressing many of the barriers that disproportionately impact these groups—like language (hiring bilingual staff), transportation (mobile markets) and cultural awareness (sourcing food that is culturally relevant).

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Tips for our readers to get involved?
We want everybody to know that EVERYBODY can play a role in the fight to end hunger—whether it's volunteering, making a donation or using your voice to raise awareness about the issue. Be part of the discussion and help take the stigma away. We want people to know that it's OK to get help. To learn about more ways you can give back, go to the Feeding America website here, click on the "Take Action" tab.

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The difference between money donations vs. food donations?
When Feeding America is responding to a disaster, like hurricanes, wildfires or the pandemic, it's a lot more efficient to secure a truckload of that product vs. sorting through the donations that come in individually. The latter takes time and labor—both of which a food bank may not have when responding to a crisis. Plus, they can stretch those financial donations and really maximize every dollar they receive. Every donation counts. Something as little as a dollar—which helps provide at least 10 meals secured by Feeding America on behalf of local member food banks—can make a huge difference and affect change.

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Leighton Meester at LA's Downtown Women’s Center

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