Even before the coronavirus pandemic closed workplaces and schools across the country, Claire Babineaux-Fontenot knew that the number of food-insecure Americans was going to skyrocket because of the virus.
With its nationwide network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs, Feeding America already serves 40 million people a year. In mid-March, Babineaux-Fontenot stepped in to establish a COVID-19 Emergency Fund, seeding it with $2.65 million. As she had feared, the economic fallout from the pandemic meant that an additional 17.1 million were in need. Corporations and private donors responded as well. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos alone contributed $100 million.
Within a month of setting up the fund, food banks were indeed reporting a 70% increase in demand. Babineaux-Fontenot allocated $116 million so food banks could hire temporary workers and purchase food and supplies—providing nearly 79 million meals to those facing hunger—and lobbied legislators and federal agencies to help out with the $1.4 billion more they calculated would be needed over the next six months.
Babineaux-Fontenot’s extraordinary response to an extraordinary demand is reason enough to honor her this year. But it’s also representative of the farseeing strategy she brings to Feeding America. For her, addressing the larger issue of hunger in this country means connecting the dots, because simply providing food isn’t enough.
Families in poverty need help with transportation, child care and employment as well as meals. Since joining the organization almost two years ago, Babineaux-Fontenot has bolstered Feeding America’s efforts to link food-insecure families with financial coaching and other resources, to feed people enrolled in job-training programs and to help local food banks locate surplus food to stock their shelves.
Every year, 72 billion pounds of edible food from U.S. farms, food manufacturers and grocery stores ends up in landfills, rather than on the tables of the 37 million Americans who don’t have enough to eat. Babineaux-Fontenot strives to bridge that gap between oversupply and alarming demand. Over the past several years, Feeding America has diverted billions of pounds of unsold food to people in need, and efforts have only ramped up given the demand for nourishing meals. “We’re the largest food recovery organization in the United States, and we have the infrastructure to do an even better job to eliminate that waste,” she says. And if there is a bright side to the current crisis, Babineaux-Fontenot says it is the unprecedented outreach she’s seen from the American public: “There are a lot more people who understand the vital role that food banks play.”