It didn't take long for reality to hit close to home -- literally -- for me as I was filming my latest documentary, "Going to Bed Hungry: The New Face of Child Hunger." I was in Palm Desert, California, where my wife and I were married. It's an area near Los Angeles that we visit often and that has come to feel like a second home to our family. The beautiful resort community is filled with swimming pools, restaurants, and award-winning golf courses. According to a recent census report, one out of every two adults in the area are millionaires. Yet when we began research for our story, things suddenly took an interesting turn.
Child hunger in America is often something you don't "see" or suspect is close to you, but there we were in an affluent area I knew quite well, interviewing hungry kids who live just blocks away from million dollar homes. I realized for the first time, 'If child hunger can exist here, it can exist anywhere.'
As a father myself, it was an honor for me to get involved when Unilever Project Sunlight asked me to direct this documentary. If just one person who sees it goes out and takes action -- if one child or family in need gets a meal they otherwise wouldn't have had -- then it was all worth it. The film is meant to inspire those who see it, and it certainly inspired the people who made it as well.
The common thread between the subjects in our film is that they are all clients of FIND Food Bank of Indio, California, a large non-profit that serves Palm Desert and the surrounding area. So just how prevalent is child hunger in the area? Well, common enough that I actually met one of the film's participants while waiting to get coffee one day. She is a manager at a local coffee shop and I asked her if she knew of any local food pantries and food banks. After explaining to me that she and her kids hit some hard times a few years ago, and that they were fortunate enough to find help locally, she decided she'd like to become one of the subjects of the movie. That's what's so striking about this problem: you'd never know just by looking at someone -- in this case, the branch manager of a national coffee shop chain -- if they or their children are food insecure.
This invisibility coupled with the fact that so many people stay silent about needing food for themselves and their children is a big reason the problem is as big as it is. For those in need, there's a pride factor in admitting you might need help to get you and your family through a difficult time. And if you're a person on the outside of this problem -- someone who might want to help others -- it's common to feel like you might be prying or crossing a line by asking someone if they need assistance.
Making this film was a very emotional experience for me. As we started talking to people experiencing food insecurity, I wasn't sure how they would respond to our questions. But after spending a great deal of time with the subjects, I was struck by how grateful they were to us for listening to their stories and helping share their experiences with others. Rather than getting defensive or self-conscious, they saw the project as a way to tell their stories and raise awareness for the issue as a whole. They all felt that by telling their stories, they could help others in need.
Throughout filming and production, I kept thinking about my own children and their friends at our local public schools. After doing the research and interviewing dozens of families in need from around the country, I'm fairly certain a lot of my children's classmates and their parents are dealing with this same challenge. The cold, hard reality is that food insecurity lives in my neighborhood, and unfortunately -- no matter where you live in America -- it lives near you, too.
Our kids and I have decided to work with their schools, their principals, and our parent organizations to help begin the conversation about food insecurity in our neighborhood and how best to make a difference for those in need.
One of the biggest ways to make a difference for these families is by helping support food banks (larger distribution centers) and food pantries (typically smaller, local outlets that partner with local food banks). These critical resources for families in America help folks get through a brief difficult period, or for an extended amount of time. Chances are, there's a food pantry within a mile or two from your home, and you might not even know it. But those in need rely on them, and the food banks and pantries rely on you and your help to continue the work they do. Whether it's through volunteering your time, donating money, or giving food donations, any help you can offer will make a big difference in your community. The Unilever Project Sunlight Share A Meal Toolkit shows all of the ways you can help your local food banks and food pantries.
I feel very lucky to have been involved in this project. It not only introduced me to the new face of child hunger in America, but it also encouraged me to start asking questions in my community and find simple actions we can do in order to make a difference. If you have the ability to help families and children facing hunger in any way, there's no more rewarding thing you can do.