In September of last year, Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, CEO of Feeding America, took a trip to visit us here in West Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. She toured our warehouse, met with our staff and volunteers and rode in one of our trucks up to a Mobile Food Pantry in Sault Ste. Marie! We got the chance to ask her a few questions, so read on to get to know Claire!
What is your role with Feeding America?
As the Chief Executive Officer, I consider myself responsible for all of the work that we do, not only as the national office, but also as a network. My most keen responsibilities would be having a clear vision for where we’re trying to go, and that I personally participate in cultivating the strategy for the work that we do. I also oversee making sure that we’re executing that strategy. A principal partner, and in truth the most powerful partner that Feeding America has, are the food banks like yours. They’re inside of communities and making things happen. I consider it incumbent on me to have a good sense of the health and well-being of the food banks and agency partners across the country. It’s my responsibility that people have the resources they need so they can share them inside the communities.
I often have the opportunity to go into communities to learn about what’s working there, to talk to members of the food bank team, and to try to think about ways in which the national office can be more helpful. So I spend a lot of time on the road and inside communities.
I also spend a lot of time directly engaging with policymakers, in Washington, D.C. especially, talking about the priorities that people experiencing hunger have. I also often engage with the media; I’m very grateful to be an ambassador for our work. I have interviews with various media outlets and try to make certain that they understand what’s important and how people can help.
What led you to working at Feeding America?
I am one of 108 children—through biology, adoption and fostering. My grandparents on both sides were sharecroppers, and neither of my parents graduated high school. When I was a child, I always had an aspiration that I would be a lawyer. I thought I would focus on children’s rights because I saw the various struggles that my brothers and sisters had and I wanted to be a part of positive change for them. Along the way I realized I was really good at math. I had a head for math and a heart for people. I graduated high school, and that was a first, and went on to college, which was also a first. I went to law school and decided that I didn’t know anyone who was a tax lawyer, and thought I might be a good one, so I became one!
So I’m a lawyer by training; I did litigation work. I have an LLM, a Master of Law that specialized in taxation. I worked in government for a while; I was a judge for a bit. As a lawyer, one of my clients for a long time was Walmart and they eventually asked me to come in-house. I spent the better part of 13 years at Walmart as the executive vice president of finance and global treasurer. One of my favorite parts of the time I was at Walmart was when I served on the foundation board. I had an opportunity to be there as we decided to really go deep with Feeding America.
I knew that you didn’t need to look to distant shores to find children experiencing hunger. Growing up, people would always say ‘you better eat that broccoli, there’s hungry kids in Africa’ or ‘you better eat that asparagus, there’s hungry kids in China’ and I knew my whole life that there were hungry kids right here. I always had a dream I was going to be a part of positive change, yet I kept getting opportunities to do other stuff.
Now, I go to the doctor every year on my birthday so that I can remember. Never would I imagine I would find out I had cancer on my birthday, but I did. Everything changed for me then. It made me keenly aware that I do not get “always,” but I’ve got now. I asked myself if it would be okay if the best thing I might ever do professionally would be the best thing I could possibly do at Walmart—and my answer was no. So, I started leaving Walmart. Fast forward, I knew I was going to go into the nonprofit space and, lo and behold, the person who runs the foundation board at Walmart remembered that when I met her I told her how awesome I thought her job was and I wanted to do something like that with my life. She heard there was an opening at Feeding America and she told them about me, and then they found me.
What is your favorite part about your job?
That I get so many reminders of the goodness of people. Sometimes I notice that what swirls around us is negativity and challenge, yet I witness people all across the country rolling their sleeves up and defining what it means to be a great neighbor. People who show goodness and kindness and generosity and grace for people experiencing hunger. To show them that they’re not defined by their hunger, they are multifaceted, resilient, extraordinary human beings. That’s my favorite part!
Do you have any standout memories?
There have been moments where I have gone out into communities after natural disasters. One of the things that distinguishes Feeding America as a network is we are there before, during and after whatever that natural disaster is. We stay as communities rebuild.
I was in Louisiana one time after a hurricane and the only building that was still standing was a firehouse. So we came in, people from the community had gathered and we were doing a food distribution to give out groceries. What was really beautiful was when we started serving the community food items that they knew and loved. We started serving jambalaya, shrimp creole, green salad, things like that. It was a reminder that food is important for our bodies but it’s also important for our spirits. Giving out those specific foods lifted the spirits of that community in a palpable way. There’s something extra special about having food that can feed your body and soul at the same time, and sometimes we get to be a part of that which is huge for me.