04/24/2014 AT 12:00 PM EDT
Oscar nominee Viola Davis
says she was always ashamed to talk about her childhood.
"I was one of those kids who grew up hungry. I'm 48 years old now, and it's only been recently that I can admit that I would jump in trash bins looking for food and I would steal from the corner store because I was hungry," Davis says in this week's issue of PEOPLE. "I would fall asleep in school on a daily basis because we had nothing."
Growing up in Central Falls, R.I., Davis says she never had friends over because "my house was a condemned building – it was boarded up and infested with rats."
Now partnering with the Safeway Foundation
and the Entertainment Industry Foundation
, Davis is spearheading the campaign for Hunger Is
to raise awareness and funds to fight childhood hunger.
"We have an image of hunger that comes from Africa, but this is America," Davis adds. "And unless your belly is distended we don't have an image of what hunger looks like here."
Food programs like Hunger Is were instrumental in helping Davis achieve her dreams and goals. "I am the first generation of my family to go to college. Those programs made all the difference for me," says the actress, who has five siblings. "It's been cathartic for me because I always had a lot of shame with going in the garbage dumps that had maggots in it, too. It has brought healing in my life to be able to talk about it."
For more of our interview with Davis, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday