Tens of millions of American children rely on free or subsidized school lunches to stay healthy and nourished every day. Growing up, Leighton Meester was one of them.
“We definitely experienced food insecurity,” she tells PEOPLE. “We relied on food stamps, welfare. A lot of the time in the checkout line at the grocery store we had to put things back. As a mom now, I can’t help but remember that time, and think about families that struggle — it’s such a joy to feed your family and enjoy a meal together, and to not be secure enough to do that everyday is such a huge hardship.”
Now, Meester, 32, is doing something about it. The Single Parents actress, who’s long been a Feeding America ambassador, is teaming with the organization, plus Subway and Shamrock Farms, for National Milk Day on Friday, Jan. 11. For each Subway Fresh Fit for Kids meal purchased with a Shamrock Farms milk that day, the companies will donate $1 to Feeding America.
“It’s really amazing because $1 can provide up to 10 meals through Feeding America,” Meester says. “A lot of times we think of donating food as a substantial way of helping out, and it is, but $1 can provide so much more.”
On top of that, Meester says that milk is one of the top-requested items at food banks, “so it just goes to show that milk for your family for recipes, for children to drink, is so needed. It’s a great way to make sure your child is getting enough calories and vitamins, and fill up their little bellies.”
One belly Meester is focused on filling is that of her daughter Arlo, who at 3 doesn’t quite understand Mom’s volunteer work, but hopefully someday will. “Kids learn most by example, so for her to observe and witness, it’ll definitely make her aware,” Meester says. “I think that’s the best I can do. And I think that volunteering, particularly with Feeding America, is such a gratifying way of giving back, so it’d be wonderful to have that be a part of her life, if she wants to do it.”
Meester — who married fellow actor Adam Brody in 2014 — says her volunteer work is “so gratifying” because she gets to interact with people who “come from the same walks of life that I do,” she shares. “I get to be face-to-face with people, helping to serve meals in Downtown Los Angeles and really talk to people.”
“What I love about volunteering with kids, especially, is that they’re so smart and fun,” she continues. “And that’s the beautiful thing about childhood — [instead of focusing on the hardships] they just like to play games. But it just goes to show that it can truly be anybody who is hungry — a coworker, a neighbor. Somebody who you may think is food secure, even with a paycheck or a partner, might not be, and that is absolutely the case for so many families.”
To help, visit a participating Subway restaurant on Friday, Jan. 11, and visit feedingamerica.org.