By Maureen Lee Lenker
August 07, 2017 at 10:00 AM EDT
Araya Diaz/Getty Images

A version of this story appears in the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands now, or available here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

In EW’s column Act With Me, stars share their personal stories about giving back. This week, Gossip Girl favorite Leighton Meester speaks about Feeding America, which fights hunger in the U.S. via increasing food security for families, educating the public about nutrition and the problem of hunger, and providing food to over 60,000 food pantries and meal programs nationwide.

WHY I TOOK ACTION

Meester knows what it’s like to be faced with tough decisions about being able to afford to eat. As a kid, there were times when her family faced this exact dilemma. “It was deciding between eating or being able to pay the light bill,” she says. Feeding America first contacted Meester in 2016, and she was eager to get involved, which she has done twice so far this year. Her participation opened her eyes to how prevalent hunger in America is. “I love cooking,” she says, “I love making meals with and for my family and for fun, and you think about what a joyful experience it is to be able to have a meal and feel secure on that level — the fact that there’s so many people who don’t, that was jarring.”

WHAT THE FOUNDATION DOES

“Feeding America is an organization that helps to bring awareness and to relieve hunger nationwide,” explains Meester. The actress has seen their efforts firsthand volunteering at the Los Angeles Downtown Women’s Center and Para Los Niños Charter School. At the Women’s Center, she helped serve food to women who come to the center for housing, food, medical care, and more. Meester also participated in Feeding America’s summer hunger campaign with husband Adam Brody at Para Los Niños Charter School. There, they helped serve kids lunch (school-age children are at higher risk of going hungry during the summer when they don’t have access to the National School Lunch Program that provides lunches during the school year). Meester also played healthy food games with the students, encouraging them to understand the importance of nutrition and a well-rounded diet, and went with them to a farmer’s market where the students could select fruits and vegetables to bring home. “You help to serve a meal, so you help to prepare and serve and get to really interact with the people face to face that you’re there to help,” explains Meester.

WHY IT’S IMPORTANT

“Food and security is something that affects a lot of people in the United States,” says Meester. “A lot of people don’t realize it’s not that far away. It’s less than a step away to have that kind of challenge on a day-to-day basis. And these people are human beings — smart, centered, awesome people, who this is affecting, and it’s not far away, it’s right here.” In addition to providing meals for individuals in need, Feeding America’s primary objective is to raise awareness of hunger in America. “This particular issue is something that affects people who you might not even realize it’s affecting — your neighbor, your friend, your co-worker, your schoolmate — they might go home at night and not be able to put food on the table or their parents can’t afford to make three meals a day.”

Meester joyfully describes the individuals she’s met while volunteering — the women and staff at the Women’s Center and the children she encountered while volunteering with the Summer Hunger Awareness Campaign. On the Women’s Center, she says, “It’s troubling and illuminating to meet women, in particular, who are like you, who don’t have food security, and they do need to go to a place like the Women’s Center.” She speaks admiringly of the kids she met at Para Los Niños — arm-wrestling with them, playing games, and being in awe of their awareness of the importance of a healthy diet which Feeding America has helped impart. “On a personal level, being a mother, and having my own family, being faced with such a troubling issue, it would be heartbreaking,” she says. “It’s really important to be able to know your child is eating. It’s such a human feeling — that’s why it struck a chord with me.”

HOW YOU CAN HELP

You can donate to Feeding America to help sustain the cost of food and their programs or you can spread awareness of the issue on social media or in person. Most importantly, you can volunteer and serve just like Meester. “It’s amazing to be actually face to face with people who are doing good and people who are benefitting from it,” she says.

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