How Growing up with 107 Siblings Prepared Feeding America CEO For Leadership

“Growing up in our home, not only did I see the impact of hunger, especially on children, I also saw the remarkable restorative powers of a nutritious mix of food on frail bodies.”

Claire Babineaux-Fontenot

Wake-Up Call: Claire, first tell me a little bit about yourself. At KCM, we LOVE seeing female CEOs, especially for organizations that do such important work. How did you end up in this role?

Claire Babineaux-Fontenot: I think the right place to start is by acknowledging my unique and remarkable upbringing — one that exposed me to food insecurity throughout my life. I am part of a really, really big family… 108 children to be exact, through adoption and foster care. So growing up in our home, not only did I see the impact of hunger, especially on children, I also saw the remarkable restorative powers of a nutritious mix of food on frail bodies.

I saw the power that even those of us of humble beginnings have to make an impact on the world, as reflected through the lives of my mother and father. My parents are also the people who first exposed me to Feeding America, back when it was called America’s Second Harvest. One of the food banks in their network served the community I was born in, and Second Harvest used to come to my childhood home. My parents, being leaders in the community, knew where the needs were. They aided Second Harvest in matching people in need with the food that they needed. My history with hunger is long, and my history with Feeding America is equally as long.

I have tried to take advantage of the remarkable professional opportunities that I’ve had throughout my life. I’m a lawyer by training, and after working with Walmart as a client I went in house with them. I spent many years with Walmart. There were remarkable opportunities and expanded responsibilities throughout the course of my career there. But a significant life event caused me to pause and reflect on how I wanted to spend the rest of my professional life. And that led me back to my roots, and back to Feeding America.

What impact did your parents have on the career decisions you’ve made?

My mother is now deceased, my father just turned 82 years young. They both serve as inspiration for me every day. I can tell you with certainty that my background informed who I aspire to be in the world. I may sometimes muddle through this life imperfectly, but I’m definitely trying to be an ambassador of the work, and those seeds were planted by my parents and my community.

Tell me a bit about Feeding America. You became the CEO in 2018 — you really hit the ground running in the role. What did you want to accomplish when you first started?

I’m 56, and there was food insecurity in this country long before I was born. As a society, we continue to grapple with a problem that we CAN fix. This is the richest country in the history of civilization. That is not hyperbolic — that is a statement of fact. Yet in this country before the Covid-19 crisis, we were throwing away 72 billion pounds of perfectly edible food, not counting household waste, every year. Before Covid-19, 37 million people were food insecure. My aspiration in this work is to be a part of the movement that will change that and will change it in a sustainable and positive way. Because it’s doable.

In April, you facilitated the organization’s largest donation to date- $100 million from Jeff Bezos. How did you pull that off?!

I hope you’re right with that phrasing — to date! Even in light of that remarkable generosity, our estimates are that now as many as 54 million people are now food insecure because of this crisis. Even with all the resources we have received, including congressional intervention, we still estimate a meal gap of 8 billion. So we need that donation to be the first but not the last significant investment of that magnitude in our work.

So much has changed since you started in this role — especially within the last six months. The number of people and families who are facing food insecurity has skyrocketed since the pandemic hit. Are you seeing a lot of people using Feeding America’s services for the first time?

Absolutely. When I started understanding the magnitude of this pandemic, I realized how devastating it would be for so many people. Hidden in plain sight was the fact that we already had nearly 40 million people in this country with food insecurity. Hidden in plain sight was the fact that 22 million kids were relying on free and reduced lunch at school. Hidden in plain sight was the fact that many of the people who were already using our services had jobs that would be impacted by this pandemic. It was horrifying for me to watch it unfold, knowing that these communities that were already so vulnerable would become even more vulnerable. Knowing that there were so many people already right there on the precipice of food insecurity, people who were barely making it, and that this would push them over the edge. There are so many people in this country living paycheck-to-paycheck, and there are a lot of missing paychecks right now.

As schools have closed, how have you been able to help children who have relied on free or reduced school lunches?

We’ve had to throw away the old playbook and write a new one about food distribution during a pandemic. We have to make sure we’re not putting those who are already vulnerable at heightened risk by coming out to get food, and we also want to protect our own people. We’ve worked with the administration to relax some of the feeding rules when it comes to children. There’s a provision that says in order to offer free food with funding from the government, you have to bring children into a congregate setting — so you have to bring a bunch of kids together and feed them together. Clearly that’s not a good idea during a health pandemic. So I’m grateful that the administration has relaxed some rules like that.

There are communities in this country where virtually all of the children qualify for free or reduced lunch. So knowing that some of our members have gone directly into those communities to drop off food. I think sometimes we lose sight of the fact that a food-insecure child lives inside of a food-insecure household. While it is absolutely important to feed that child, you’re not addressing the real need if you only provide enough food for the kid to eat. So we’ve had to make adjustments in that regard. When we know there’s a family with children in it, we try to provide enough food for an entire family. You see those photos of cars lined up for miles and miles to get food? Well, we ask those people how many there are in their family, so we make certain that those kids in those houses are being fed.

There is so much that our network can do, and has done, and I am so proud of them every day. But we cannot close an 8 billion meal gap relying on the charitable food system alone. So it’s going to require policy intervention, and that’s especially true when it comes to kids. I know there are kids out there right now missing meals and moms who won’t eat until their kids get fed. Kids who will ask for seconds, when their mom or dad is skipping their meal just so their kid can have a first meal. The most challenging and the most gratifying part of the work, for me, is knowing that that does and can happen, and knowing that the work that we do makes it happen less often. That when people donate to us, they know exactly where their investment is going to go — directly to those households, to allow those moms and dads to put their kids to bed with full bellies.

For people who are looking for ways to support Feeding America… what can they do?

The first thing I would say is to visit our website, where you can educate yourself on the reality of hunger in this country. You can activate yourself by making financial contributions to the extent that you can. We value every single investment. Of course, we need large investments like we received from Mr. Bezos, but we honor every single investment we receive.

On that website, you can also find local food banks. The great thing about Feeding America is that wherever you’re from in the US or wherever has a special place in your heart — where you were raised, where went to college, where you met your spouse — if you put the zip code into our food bank locator, you will find an organization that is desperately working to help that community that you care about. By investing in their work, you invest in that community too.

Finally, we are way more powerful than I think we give ourselves credit for. Politicians care about what people who vote care about. Tell them you care about hunger. Tell them you want them to care, too.

This interview originally appeared on Medium.