At home in Granada Hills, California, Viola Davis opens her stainless-steel refrigerator. It's stocked with almond milk, tofu, low-sugar orange juice, and organic meat. On a table there's a bowl filled with bananas; around the newly remodeled kitchen, all kinds of ingredients for smoothies. Such healthy abundance was unimaginable for Davis while growing up. As she puts it simply: "We had no food."
Until recently the actress—a two-time Oscar nominee (The Help and Doubt) who is now wowing audiences in ABC's How to Get Away With Murder—has kept many of the harrowing details of her childhood to herself. That changed last year, when she realized she could do something for the nearly 17 million kids in America who are hungry. She could tell her story, and she could fight for change at the same time.
Born 49 years ago on her grandmother's farm, a former slave plantation in St. Matthews, South Carolina, Davis grew up with five siblings. Her mother had an eighth-grade education; her father, who groomed horses at a racetrack, made it only to fifth grade. When the family moved to Rhode Island, they got permission to live rent-free in buildings slated to be demolished; "128 Washington Street was infested with rats," recalls Davis. She'd huddle with her sisters on a top bunk, where they'd wrap bedsheets around their necks to protect themselves from bites, horrified at the sounds of rodents eating pigeons on the roof. (Even now, she says, "When my sister and I have a nightmare, we say it was about 128.") Then, when Davis was eight, the girls won a local skit contest, which launched her passion for acting. The prize? A softball kit with a red plastic bat. Back at home, one sister used it to pummel the rats.
But even harder to bear than the vermin was hunger—ever present and completely preoccupying. After the first-of-the-month welfare check arrived, Davis' parents would buy groceries, yet the food would quickly disappear. "It was like, If you don't eat it now, it'll be gone, and you're going to be hungry for the next—Lord, who knows how long," Davis remembers. She constantly plotted how to get food, befriending a boy whose mother would give her banana bread, or joining a summer program for the free Kool-Aid and doughnuts. She even remembers digging through a dumpster. At school, she says, "I was always so hungry and ashamed, I couldn't tap into my potential. I couldn't get at the business of being me."