Raised in a (Very) Crowded House, Now Feeding the Hungry in a Pandemic

Claire Babineaux-Fontenot has 107 brothers and sisters.

When she was growing up in central Louisiana, her parents had children of their own, adopted others and raised many in foster care. Not all of them grew up to be as successful as Ms. Babineaux-Fontenot, the chief executive of Feeding America. Many had gone hungry before they joined her family, and Ms. Babineaux-Fontenot was raised with an acute awareness of the devastating effects of poverty, hunger and inequality.

After graduating from college and receiving advanced degrees in law and taxation, Ms. Babineaux-Fontenot joined the corporate world. She spent 13 years in executive roles at Walmart, before a health scare and some soul searching led her two years ago to join Feeding America, which runs a network of more than 200 food banks.

Over the past four months, tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs. As a result, what was already a pervasive hunger problem was made substantially worse. Around the country, food banks have been overwhelmed. Feeding America has been racing to meet the surge in demand, an effort that was helped by a recent $100 million gift from Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos.

This conversation, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was part of a series of live Corner Office calls to discuss the pandemic and the protests. Visit timesevents.nytimes.com to join upcoming digital events.

We’ve all seen these harrowing photographs of cars lined up for miles at food banks around the country. Can you give us a sense of just how dire the hunger crisis in America is at this moment?

It’s unprecedented. The peak was about a 70 percent increase in need, but right now it seems to have stabilized at about a 60 percent increase. And 40 percent of the people coming to us for help are people who’ve never before relied upon a charitable food system. And all of this in the midst of the health pandemic, which has created additional challenges around making certain that the people that we serve are safe and that those of our members who are out there on the front lines are safe as they provide that service to people.

Even before Covid, there were 37 million people in the United States who were food insecure, according to the U.S.D.A. We also know that there were 22 million kids who receive free and reduced lunch. So when you start shutting down schools and you have children who were relying upon schools as a chief source of food, children start getting impacted nearly immediately.

Those numbers are hard to accept. Who is it that is going hungry? It’s not just homeless people and those at the absolute margins of society, is it? For many of us, these are our friends and neighbors.

That’s absolutely true. If there is a silver lining to this, I do believe that the American public has a raised consciousness around food insecurity. There are tens of millions of people in this country who have been struggling with food insecurity. And while we have an image of someone who is food insecure as being homeless, there is food insecurity among people who have full-time jobs, some of them with more than one full-time job. That was true before the pandemic. Now add on top of that the fact that there is a relationship between rising unemployment and food insecurity, especially for that 40 percent who have never before relied on a charitable food system.

Hunger is not an isolated problem. It can lead to this whole host of other challenges, complicating education, other health issues, mental well-being.

Absolutely. Food insecurity has a significant negative impact on the fiscal health of our country. There’s a direct correlation between food insecurity and medical health outcome for children and for adults. If you want to have meaningful progress for educational outcomes for our society, then we’re going to have to confront food insecurity. I can’t think of anything that matters, that we want for our country, that would not be made better if we were to get really serious about addressing food insecurity in this country. When people have consistent, predictable access to a nutritious mix of food, there’s so many positive things that flow from that one thing. And there’s so many negative things that flow from not having it.

The fund-raising environment for so many nonprofits has become extremely challenging. Have people been stepping up to contribute to Feeding America and give you the resources you need to meet this spike in demand?

People absolutely have been stepping up. We’ve seen an incredible outpouring of support across the board from individuals to corporations. We’ve had meaningful partnerships with the U.S.D.A. in relaxing certain regulations that might have made sense before Covid but absolutely don’t during Covid.

Between March 1 and May 24, we provided 1.3 billion meals. Last year, we provided 4.5 billion meals in the entire year. But our data shows us that the meal gap over the course of the next 12 months is going to be eight billion meals. So there’s still a huge need.

So I want to honor the investments that have been made and that outpouring of support. But I’ve got to tell you, this is a marathon, not a sprint. We’re going to need more in order to provide that food.

You recently received the single largest gift in the organization’s history, a $100 million contribution from the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. How did that gift come about, and what do you do when you receive $100 million?

It’s a good problem to have. I was surprised and delighted by the opportunity to help Mr. Bezos and his team to understand why they should make a bet that the Feeding America network was going to be uniquely positioned to provide value to people facing hunger if they made that investment.

A combination of things gave rise to the question of whether that investment would be made through Feeding America. One of them was that you can’t deny the need when you see a parking lot with 10,000 families lined up for food. Mr. Bezos didn’t have a lot of preconditions on his contribution. He needed to have confidence that the organization was well positioned to deliver value to people with a sense of urgency.

Something that Feeding America did at the beginning of this pandemic was we created our Covid-19 fund. And we committed that every bit of the money that goes into that fund would make its way into local communities, that we would not extract one dime of administrative costs. And the public has really responded. Because I think part of the challenge in a situation like this is you have so many people who really want to help, and they have to trust some place to make their investments.

Tell us a little bit about the remarkable circumstances of your upbringing. Where did you grow up? What was it like?

I was born into a family that is rather unique in many, many ways. And among the ways that we were unique is the inordinate number of my siblings that came to us not through biology but through adoption and foster care. I am one of over a hundred children. My grandparents on both sides were sharecroppers. Neither of my parents graduated even from high school. So I grew up in an environment where I understood so keenly that not everybody gets dealt the same hand. So many of my siblings had significant challenges to overcome. And I witnessed how my parents, through their dedication and their commitment to others, even without a lot of educational sophistication, were able to make a meaningful impact on the lives of other people, including me.

Most of my siblings who joined my family throughout the course of my childhood came into our family having been malnourished. Most of them were food insecure before they joined our family. So I witnessed firsthand the devastating implications of a lack of access to a nutritious mix of food on a child. I also witnessed the restorative powers of food on their bodies and their spirits as well. So I bring all of that into the moment that I’m in right now.

I have to imagine that not all of your 100 or so siblings have been as successful professionally as you. What do you believe allowed you to go so far against such long odds?

The fact that I have so many brothers and sisters who suffered from the ravages of food insecurity so early in their lives, putting them in a position which they were never able to fully overcome. When I was inclined to give up, all I had to do was think about one of my siblings who had been dealt just a completely different set of cards, to remind me of the remarkable privileges that I had now. We were not wealthy. And I wouldn’t say that the schools that I went to would be blue ribbon schools. But I definitely was conditioned to make the best of what I had, knowing that there were so many people who didn’t have what I did.

You had come so far at Walmart and taken a series of really important executive roles. Why leave such a place of prominence in corporate America to join Feeding America?

If I had to say it in a word: cancer. In 2015, when I was in the best shape of my life, I learned that I had cancer. I was at Walmart, in Bentonville, Ark., and I was doing very well professionally. But I’d been walking around all my life knowing about these issues and challenges.

After I got through my surgeries and my chemo, my prognosis was great. I had a conversation with myself, and I asked an important question, which was: What if the last thing that you ever get to do professionally is the last thing that you might possibly do at Walmart? Would that be OK? And my answer was no.