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Viola Davis shares what it was like to go hungry as a child

One in 6 American kids goes hungry every day.

One in 6 children in America faces food insecurity today. In her youth, award-winning actress Viola Davis was one of them.

Davis, who stars as Michelle Obama in Showtime's new series "The First Lady," spoke to TODAY anchor Hoda Kotb for her podcast, "Making Space." During the conversation, she opened up about her experience of going hungry as a child — and how it affects her still.

Viola Davis talked to Hoda Kotb on her podcast "Making Space" about childhood hunger and new book.
Viola Davis talked to Hoda Kotb on her podcast "Making Space" about childhood hunger and new book.Getty Images

“The thing about being hungry is you don’t think about anything else. You don’t get at the business of being you. You don’t get at the business of being anything,” Davis told Kotb.

Davis, who is now a spokesperson for the childhood hunger-fighting organization No Kid Hungry, also tells this story in her recent memoir, “Finding Me.”

Davis said childhood hunger adversely affected her performance in school.

"You get to school at 8. By 8:15, you’re falling asleep. You’re listening to people who say, 'Aw, my mom made me breakfast this morning, I didn’t want that cereal,' and you’re thinking 'You didn’t eat your cereal? You had cereal? With milk?'" she recalled.

According to Pamela Taylor, chief communications and marketing officer at No Kid Hungry, hungry students are more likely to score lower on standardized tests, are more likely to repeat a grade or be suspended, and will likely get sick more often and be hospitalized more frequently.

"They're more likely to get into disagreements and more physical altercations, which is how they end up getting suspended more," Taylor told TODAY Parents.

"The thing about being hungry is you don’t think about anything else. You don’t get at the business of being you."

Viola Davis

Davis recalls feeling "deep, deep shame," especially around her peers and teachers. "How do you tell someone that you’re hungry? How do you say that to a teacher who’s worried about maybe your grades, how you’re progressing in class?" she asked. "And you’re thinking, 'Can you just give me something to eat and maybe I can answer that?'"

Davis attempted to get money from strangers to buy food. "On the street, I would go up to people and say, Do you have a quarter? Do you have 50 cents? Or people who would come up to me, especially older men, might I add, who’d say, 'you’re so cute. I’m going to give you 35 cents if you give me a kiss on the cheek,'" she said. "So I figured out a way to get that— give them that kiss on the cheek and get that 35 cents."

She frequented community resources, too. "It’s going to soup kitchens, Catholic churches. Or the lunches they provided at the recreation parks during the summer. There’s all kinds of things that you have to rely on, that you have to forage. Friendships where you know parents are going to make three meals a day. So you form those friendships, you go over to the house and you wait for the meal," she told Kotb.

To combat hunger, No Kid Hungry sponsors programs such as "Breakfast After the Bell," which allows students to eat breakfast together in the classroom after the bell rings, but before the actual school day starts.

"This takes away the stigma that many children feel when they're on the free or reduced breakfast and lunch program — breakfast in particular because those kids would need to come to school before the school day starts," Taylor said. "Then they're sitting in the cafeteria having breakfast, which emphasizes the fact that they're not able to eat at home for whatever reason — and it makes kids feel bad. They get teased, they get bullied."

Davis was bullied, too — boys in her classes would punch her, chase her and call her racial slurs. She said she felt like she was constantly "running for her life."

The trauma and anxiety she had in her childhood still lingers, she told Kotb. "You don’t get out. That’s what happens. You have to reconcile," Davis said.

Today, Davis is working on making peace with her past.

"I’m not ashamed of it, because I know that every single part of it made me who I am... I’m owning my story so people can be less alone."

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