Leighton Meester Talks Giving Kids 'All We Never Had' After Growing Up with Food Insecurity (Exclusive)

Leighton Meester tells PEOPLE about how her upbringing shaped the way she parents and her drive to give back

Leighton Meester operates in gratitude, in life and in parenting.

Speaking with PEOPLE about her partnership with GoGo squeeZ benefitting Feeding America, The Orville actress, 37, opens up about how her parenting journey raising 8-year-old daughter Arlo and her 2½-year-old son with husband Adam Brody has "made me reflect on my own upbringing and childhood."

"It's all just so intimate and private. It's something that I could never put into words, really. It's such an emotional journey to have children, and it certainly has made me reflect on my own upbringing and childhood," she tells PEOPLE.

"Having children, I want to give them all that we never had when we were growing up, but also to be candid and open about how grateful we should be for everything that we have."

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<p>Getty Images</p> Leighton Meester and Adam Brody

Getty Images

Leighton Meester and Adam Brody

Related: Leighton Meester Says It's a 'Joy' to Watch Husband Adam Brody as a Dad: 'It's Really Amazing'

"It's one of the reasons why I'm so grateful to be partnering with Feeding America and Go Go Squeez because growing up, we dealt with food insecurity," Meester shares. "We relied on food stamps and welfare and it definitely wasn't always easy come dinner time or at the grocery checkout line."

"I'm so grateful for this partnership because GoGo squeeZ is going to be donating up to 250,000 meals through Feeding America to put food in kids' lunch boxes this new school year," says Meester, who spent time with children at North Valley Caring Services Food Pantry in Los Angeles county "playing games, enjoying GoGo squeeZ."

"There's obviously a shame stigma and secrecy around food insecurity, for both children and adults alike. I think it's something that when you're growing up, you may not talk about it. It may not be something friends or co-workers or schoolmates might be aware of," she says, referencing her own experience.

"And also that it ebbs and flows. It's not always the exact same situation from day-to-day or week-to-week or month-to-month," she points out. "It's such an important aspect of life to be able to eat and enjoy food, so if you're not feeling secure with it, it can lead to a lot of different issues on all different levels."

<p>Michael Simon for GoGo squeeZ</p> Leighton Meester chatting with kids

Michael Simon for GoGo squeeZ

Leighton Meester chatting with kids

In her own house, the Gossip Girl alum is getting the hang of back to school after "an interesting last handful of years."

"To me, going back to school is great. My kids' birthdays are in the summer, so that's when they get the new clothing items that they can grow into versus all the stuff that's getting a little bit tired on them," she says. "It just shows that they're growing so much."

"We get the school supplies, maybe a new backpack. We're definitely getting excited about going and seeing friends, the fun field trips and all the things that they'll learn," she continues. "For me, I definitely try to get organized and get excited and wrap my head around the new routine — waking up early or getting ready the night before, packing lunch and packing up the backpack. We get geared up as much as possible ahead of time."

Laughing, she adds, For me growing up, the new school year was always like, 'This is the year I'm going to be cool.'"

<p>Michael Simon for GoGo squeeZ</p> Leighton Meester coloring with kids

Michael Simon for GoGo squeeZ

Leighton Meester coloring with kids

While the milestones are exciting, Meester admits she's not immune to the bittersweetness of them.

"Every moment is this amazing leap into new development where suddenly, your child is going off to school or suddenly, they're reading and writing and interested more in their friends than you, or being potty trained. It's all those steps into being more independent that are so exciting and beautiful, and then it's also just tinged with sadness always because that little reminder of them being a baby is slowly slipping away," she says.

Of this year, she notes, "Right now, I'm on strike and hoping that we make a deal and figure everything out. I love working. But right now, it's forced time off, so I'm going to enjoy being with my family and doing back to school."

Adam Brody and Leighton Meester
Adam Brody and Leighton Meester

Meester and Brody look forward to taking their little ones to kick off the spooky season at Disneyland.

"Definitely, come fall, I start getting excited for Halloween. It's my favorite holiday and we like to go to Disney during Halloween time, when it's all decorated and we're in costumes," she says. "That time of year is so joyful to me."

Albeit currently on hiatus, the working mom knows there's no scenario that feels good all the time and tries to make the best of the changes in her busy life.

"Whenever I'm working, I miss my kids and I miss my own bed, my own house. And when I'm home with my kids, I'm sometimes wishing I could be out there being creative," she says.

"There's no black or white, good or bad. It's just sort of day-to-day, I try to find little pockets of time that I can have to myself to write or exercise or surf or do therapy or be with my husband," she says. "But, a lot of the time that doesn't end up happening how I thought, so it's trying to find little moments, for me time and to have some peace."

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