How does one tap into their passion of helping to feed millions of people around the nation? Well, growing up with 107 siblings is one way to kickstart it. Case in point (and perhaps the most unique example in the world): Feeding America CEO Claire Babineaux-Fontenot. While she is the head of the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, Babineaux-Fontenot has been immersed in the power of love and generosity throughout her entire life thanks to her parents, who raised over 100 children together by way of biology, foster care and adoption alike!
But let the Feeding America leader — and not to mention, one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020 — tell it for herself. Aerie caught up with Babineaux-Fontenot to learn more about her illustrious story and what drives her to this day. Read on below, where she shares insight about her inspiration, what other important factors can be learned as it pertains to food insecurity, and the significance of using your influence for good.
What inspired you or what moment(s) in your life made you pivot to wanting to help feed others?
I think of my journey to Feeding America as a path on which I was always meant to be. From my upbringing, through my experiences at law school, and my time as an executive at Walmart, my experiences were shaping and preparing me for this very role.
I am fortunate to have been raised by parents who possessed an extraordinary capacity for love and generosity. Over the course of their lives, they raised 108 children who came into my family through biology, foster care and adoption. Most of my brothers and sisters became members of our family through some form of neglect or abuse, and most of them suffered with hunger. Until they joined my great big family, that is. I witnessed the restorative power that food had on their bodies and spirits.
When I decided to leave Walmart, I knew my next move was going to be to an organization where I could make an impact. Through the Walmart Foundation, I got to know Feeding America as an effective, mission-driven organization and when I learned they were looking for a CEO, I knew without a doubt that, for me, it was the right opportunity at the right time.
How does food insecurity impact other areas of people’s lives that might not be obvious to the outside world?
I think people generally understand that nutritious food is the foundation for a healthy life. But it’s harder for people to grasp the connection that food has to every other facet of one’s life. But if you simply consider how you feel when you’re hungry, it’s easy to put yourself in the shoes of a person facing hunger. Maybe you feel irritable or lethargic when you haven’t eaten in a while. Maybe you have a hard time concentrating or your blood-sugar level drops and you get dizzy.
Now imagine if that was a chronic state of being. How would you perform at work, learn in school or handle a stressful situation in that state? How would you control your blood-sugar if you didn’t have food? The implications of hunger are more far-reaching than people realize.
People who rely on the Feeding America network for food assistance are three times as likely to have diabetes and hypertension and are more likely to struggle with managing their disease. For children, food insecurity is particularly harmful. Even periodic hunger can affect a child’s physical, cognitive and behavioral development, and impair academic achievement and future economic prosperity. Hunger can also cause toxic stress that can have long-term effects on a person’s mental health.
When we provide people with food, we aren’t just nourishing bodies. We are alleviating a father’s stress of not knowing how he’ll feed his family, providing an elderly woman the nutrition she needs to stay healthy, giving a child the fuel he needs to learn and grow, and giving a mother piece of mind that allows her to focus on building a more stable life.
What have been your biggest personal driving factors as you’ve pursued higher learning and risen to executive levels in your career?
I am profoundly aware of and grateful for the privileges and opportunities I have had throughout my life. From the beginning, I was remarkably privileged simply to have my mother and father as parents. Their generosity and the sacrifices they made to raise me and my many siblings taught me to be grateful for what I had and to work hard for what I wanted. As the children of sharecroppers on both sides, my mother and father did not have the privilege of graduating from high school, but I did.
I had the opportunity to get not one, but two law degrees. And I had numerous people throughout my life who took chances on me and gave me opportunities to stretch my wings professionally and personally and to achieve things my parents could never imagine for themselves. I am deeply grateful for the gifts and opportunities I have been granted, and I do my best to use them to their fullest every day.
How are you and the Feeding America organization keeping ties to the community amid the pandemic and social distancing measures?
I am proud of how quickly the Feeding America network adapted to provide a record number of meals to people impacted by the pandemic. Food banks are needed most at times like this when people are out of work and isolated. Since the pandemic began, each of our 200 food banks has remained open and many have extended their hours or hired additional temporary workers to serve the growing number of people in need.
To protect the health and safety of staff, volunteers and the people they serve, food bankers had to adapt their distribution models overnight. This included changing their volunteer programs to limit the number of people who could be in the warehouse at the same time, or substituting temporary workers for their aging volunteer force who is most at risk of serious COVID-related illness. It also meant that food bank staff had to find new ways to safely deliver food while adhering to the CDC’s guidelines for social distancing. Across the network, food banks established no-contact mobile pantries, home delivery programs, and to-go meal options to continue serving their communities safely. Many Feeding America food banks hosted drive-through distributions, some of which served more than 10,000 people in a single day!
You were named on TIME’s list of the 100 Most Influential People for 2020. What has it been like to receive this honor?
It was indeed a great honor to be named alongside so many movers and shakers who are changing the world. And although it’s my name and my photo that TIME chose to feature in their list, I see myself as a proxy — an ambassador for the 7,000 employees at Feeding America network food banks, 2 million volunteers that help feed our neighbors in need, tens of thousands of donors and supporters of our efforts, and the nonprofit and government partners who help provide relief to the millions of people who are still suffering from the economic fall out of the pandemic.
Together, we provided more than 4.2 billion meals since the start of the pandemic in March. This is our achievement. And if you are reading this, and you helped us provide food to people during this pandemic, then thank you. This is your achievement, too.
Well, we’re inspired, how about you?! Let us know what you think of Babineaux-Fontenot’s story and journey to Feeding America in the comments, Aerie fam.