Feeding America CEO: Quest to fight US hunger crisis amid COVID-19 pandemic her 'greatest honor'

Feeding America CEO: Quest to fight US hunger crisis amid COVID-19 pandemic her 'greatest honor'

February 21, 2021

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No matter what Claire Babineaux-Fontenot was doing, she always longed to do more.

That longing coupled with the lessons instilled in her by her parents who "were raised to be service leaders" led her to a foundation tasked with fighting the hunger crisis in the U.S.

As the chief executive officer of Feeding America, Babineaux-Fontenot oversees a network of more than 200 food banks that are on a mission to feed more than 46 million people through food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters and other community-based agencies.

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It's a battle Babineaux-Fontenot always knew existed. Now, equipped with the experience of having 107 siblings, holding two law degrees and being a key member of Walmart’s leadership team for more than a decade, she feels ready to fight that battle.

Growing up, Babineaux-Fontenot's parents "couldn't look past children in need," so they welcomed them into their home.

"I come from this remarkable family," she said. "I am one of 108 children through biology and foster care and adoption."

Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, CEO of Feeding America, in the warehouse at Helping Harvest on Jan. 20, 2021. (Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

As a result, Babineaux-Fontenot said certain issues were made abundantly clear to her at a young age. One of them: food insecurity.

"I certainly saw the ravages of food insecurity and even malnutrition," she said. "There are so many people who struggle, a lot of kids in this country struggle."

There were moments, Babineaux-Fontenot recalled, when her mother would even stop someone who was simply walking by their home and ask: "are you hungry?"

It was this "notion of making room for kids at your table," Babineaux-Fontenot said.

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And because of that, Babineaux-Fontenot said she grew up with "a deep sense of personal responsibility to be a part of the change for other people, especially for kids."

Her initial dream was to be a child rights attorney. And while her path led her into tax law, she made sure her first case aligned with her original mission. After passing the bar, she became the lawyer on an adoption case for her parents.

By 2004, Babineaux-Fontenot took a job as a top executive at Walmart where she spent nearly 13 years. However, when she was diagnosed with cancer in 2015, she decided it was time for a change.

"When that happened I knew that I needed to go and do something that was different," she said. "I knew that I wanted to use whatever talents I have … I wanted to give them more directly to help."

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As she was making that life-changing decision, Feeding America was looking for a new chief executive.

A recruiter had called Babineaux-Fontenot about the opening, but because she was very familiar with the organization, she wanted to know that "the work was in good hands" and took her name out of consideration.

"I think this role is going to require a real serious commitment to a remarkable organization," she said. "And there's a level of energy that I think the president of the world is going to need to have."

It turns out, she was that very person.

After losing sleep over her earlier decision, she called the recruiter back to make sure they found the right person. They didn't and eventually, she found herself in the role.

Sitting at the helm of an organization that touches the lives of millions of people nationwide has been the "greatest honor" of her professional life, although when she first started out she was confronted with a pang of guilt.

For the first six months, Babineaux-Fontenot recalled starting every conversation with an apology for not starting this work sooner.

"I didn't realize I was carrying around some guilt for doing all the other stuff that I'd done, knowing all the things that I knew my whole life," she said.

However, she quickly realized that her past work experiences and the lessons she learned from have equipped her to lead such a "remarkable" organization.

"I believe that things happen for a reason," she said. "I believe that that the choices that we make significantly influence our outcome."

In 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic had exacerbated the issue of food insecurity, Babineaux-Fontenot was named one of Time's 100 most influential pioneers, leaders, titans, artists and icons of the year.

Each day she uses the ideals taught to her from her parents. One of the biggest is being there for your family.

And for Babineaux-Fontenot, family isn't just about biology.

"On the most basic level, it's about a deep love that connects people, the facilities that that that has you to hope for them, you know, and wish for them to have aspirations for them. "

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