Claire Babineaux-Fontenot: Empathetic Leader

This pandemic shone a light on things hidden in plain sight: food insecurities, racial injustices, inequities. By knowing it, that's the foundation for doing something about it. It's a powerful opportunity, a unique chance to go write a new playbook. And I want to be a part of it.

Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, CEO, Feeding America

As Feeding America CEO and one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020, Claire Babineaux-Fontenot leads Feeding America’s vast U.S. network of 200 food banks, 60,000 food pantries and meal programs, and approximately 2 million volunteers.

Our staff had the opportunity to speak with Claire about how recent events affected Feeding America’s communities, from rising food insecurity to systemic inequality.

How has the 2020 pandemic impacted Feeding America?

Our food banks serve every county that struggles with food insecurity across this country and in U.S. territories. That means every place, because there’s no place that’s immune to hunger across the U.S.

We estimate about 53 million people around the U.S. (compared to 37 million in 2018) are going to suffer with food insecurity as a result of this pandemic. Members of our network see unprecedented need, and they’re delivering against some really tough headwinds.

Feeding America refers to COVID-19 as the “perfect storm.” Why?

When we started learning that COVID-19 was going to have an impact on people who have certain underlying conditions, I immediately understood what that meant. Vulnerable communities were going to be particularly impacted by this health pandemic, because I knew that they’re at least two times more likely to suffer from some of those chronic, underlying conditions that make COVID-19 more lethal.

Around the country, people are really struggling. Along with the health pandemic is a food crisis. Many people who are food insecure in this country have jobs—not just one job. And they inordinately rely upon the industries most impacted by COVID-19 for their own sustenance.

What permanent, lasting changes will stem from the extraordinary events of 2020?

I think that the lasting change is really around mindset. What will linger well beyond any of the health and financial implications is that we collectively know better now. We see things that maybe we ignored before. This pandemic hasn’t allowed us to ignore it.

I think with that change in mindset, that openness to a new way of looking at the world … on how we interact with ourselves and with each other, I believe that will lead to sustainable progress if we allow it to.

How do you see mindsets shifting?

We had the luxury of ignorance in many places before. But this pandemic shone a light on things hidden in plain sight: food insecurities, racial injustices, inequities. By knowing it, that’s the foundation for doing something about it. It’s a powerful opportunity, a unique chance, to go write a new playbook. And I want to be a part of it.

What epiphanies did you have about your work?

I had ideas about what it meant to work remotely. I thought that I was pretty forward-looking when it came to remote work. Then, I realized that I had these biases that were not at the surface, but that were really holding back the productivity of members of my team.

Bringing technology and this new thinking around working—not just from home, but from everywhere or anywhere—to the table will translate into remarkable value, in terms of the quality of work and quality of life for members of our team.

The need for technology has never been more acute than it is today. It’s going to be fundamental to the work that we do—especially as we try to think about how to deliver in that last mile to people who live in remote places.

Will things ever get back to “normal”?

I do not believe that “normal” will be defined in the same way post-COVID-19.

There were 37 million people in this country who didn’t have consistent access to nutritious food. That wasn’t acceptable then. It shouldn’t be acceptable now. And it certainly shouldn’t be acceptable in the future.

So many light bulbs have gone off that I do not believe we will ever be as we were before. And sure, some of that will be negative and will be a challenge. But there are some other kernels in there, some silver linings in this dark cloud, that are going to make us stronger on the other side.

Learn more about how Feeding America is responding to COVID-19.

This conversation was edited for space and clarity.