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‘What we’ve seen since covid has been a precipitous increase in need,’ says Feeding America CEO

Claire Babineaux-Fontenot is the CEO of Feeding America.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot is the CEO of Feeding America. (Cooper Neill/For The Washington Post)

Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, 56, is chief executive of Feeding America, the largest domestic hunger organization in the country, with a network of 200 food banks, 60,000 food pantries and meals programs, and 2 million volunteers. Previously, she was part of Walmart’s leadership team as executive vice president and global treasurer.

What do people tend misunderstand about food insecurity?

How pervasive it is. Also, people tend to think they know who it is that faces hunger. And often, they’re not right. You can’t just look at a person and know whether or not they’re food insecure. Many people who are food insecure have jobs. They work really, really hard, have strong work ethics. One of the most disappointing aspects of this work for me is this idea of “earned hunger.” Being engaged in a conversation with someone who [says], you know, “Those people, they’re hungry because they’re not trying hard enough.” When the majority of people who are food insecure in this country are working-class poor. Moms with kids who are trying to make ends meet but can’t.

What sort of impact has the pandemic had on your work?

What we’ve seen since covid has been a precipitous increase in need. Very early on, we started noticing that there were new faces showing up in need of food. Forty percent of the people turning to us for help had never before turned to the charitable food system for help. We’re estimating that, over the course of the pandemic, those numbers are going to go from roughly 35 million to somewhere closer to 50 million.

Have there been instances where you’ve not been able to meet the need? And then what happens?

Well, early on especially, no one anticipated that there would be this huge influx of people in need. So some of the saddest conversations that I’ve ever had in this work are with food bankers who had to turn people away because they just didn’t have enough food to help them. It’s less often the case now, but I have some serious concerns about what’s to come. Because we’ve got some read head winds going into the winter that I’m really, really concerned about.

Can you talk about stories you’ve heard from people at food distributions?

There are so many. I had an encounter with an elderly lady who went to one of our distributions. I could tell that she was reluctant to come. She kept her eyes down, her head down. She was not moving very quickly to get the food. Once she received it, I thanked her for coming out, and we had an opportunity for a conversation. She talked about how she and her husband had done everything they were supposed to do. They had enough money to get them through their old age. Her husband was now deceased, but she still felt pretty comfortable that she was going to be able to get by. Then, without warning, she was put in a position where she had to take care of her grandkids as the sole caregiver. They just hadn’t counted on that part — and she can’t do it. And it was one thing in her mind for her to go to bed hungry, which is a tragic thing to think that a senior in this country would go to bed hungry. But what forced her into action was that she couldn’t send her grandbabies to bed hungry. And that story repeats itself so many times.

I’ve had conversations with people who drive up in pretty fancy cars to some of the food distributions — and I’ve had people suggest, Well, you know, they must not be so bad off. Look at that car. But those people have said: I never dreamt I would be in this line. I had a good job. I was able to cover all my bills. I was doing fine. And then, out of the blue, this pandemic happened, and not only did I lose my job, but I lost my prospects. And here I am. Even people who used to volunteer at the food bank, and here they are, on the other side, having to receive food.

When you talk with the people who are there for the first time, what kind of feelings are they dealing with? Is there shame? Are they looking around to see if their neighbors see them?

Oh my, absolutely. One of the big challenges to overcome is this feeling of guilt and shame that’s attached to the status of being food insecure. There are people who qualify for benefits who don’t seek them out of shame. It’s really sad. And what’s affirming to me is when I talk to someone about how embarrassed they were on the front end and how, because they were treated with dignity and respect, it wasn’t nearly as hard as they thought it was going to be. Many of them also say: “As soon as I’m on my feet, I am going to volunteer at my food bank.”

Your parents were an extraordinary couple who [raised] 108 children [adopted, fostered and biological] over the course of their life. How did your upbringing influence or prepare you for the work you’re doing today?

Let me start by saying this: I have always understood that there was hunger in America. My mother never had to tell us to eat our food because there were hungry kids in Africa or China. Because everyone who grew up in our house knew that there was hunger right here. Right here, in the richest country in the history of civilization. I’ve always known. And I’ve always also known about the restorative powers of nutritious food — that it doesn’t just feed your body. It feeds your spirit. That it’s a foundational building block for everything else good that comes to people. I watched transformations inside of my own family.

As fate would have it, and luck, and hard work, all together, and probably in that order, I’ve had these remarkable professional opportunities, and gotten to do things I never even dreamt that I could. I’m the granddaughter of sharecroppers on both sides. Neither of my parents graduated from high school. And yet, here I am, able to graduate from high school and college and then law school. And to work in remarkable places. But then I had a moment that forced me to reckon with my own mortality. And, in that moment, I had such clarity around the fact that, were I provided the opportunity to go out and get on the front lines and help people like my brothers and sisters and like so many other people who are struggling, that I was going to seize that opportunity. And this is that chance for me. This is that chance. So I bring all of those experiences with me to this work.

I’m sure that influences the way you treat people when they come in for food.

Yes. You can grudgingly give someone something that you don’t think they’re entitled to. Right? You can judge them in the giving of it. And they can tell. Or you can extend a hand with dignity and respect to somebody when they, like all of us who are mere mortals, need a helping hand. And the way you do that informs how the other person will receive it.

I have a little expression that I use, which is: I want all my pain to pay. All of us are suffering and struggling through this crisis — though to be sure, not to the same degree. The fact that so many people accessing our services during covid never accessed them before represents an opportunity to shed light on the circumstances people have been suffering under even before covid. There are things we can’t unsee now: those miles and miles of cars waiting for food distributions across the United States. Now people have a heightened awareness. And with that heightened awareness, we can choose to be better on the other side of this. To throw away the old playbook [in which], in the richest country in the history of civilization, we threw away 72 billion pounds of perfectly edible food while almost 40 million people turned to the charitable food system to be able to feed themselves and their families. I don’t want to go back to the old playbook. I want to write a new one.

KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @kkOttesen. This interview has been edited and condensed.