by Connie Clark
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot’s goal is to eliminate hunger in America. The Louisiana native is a devout Catholic who brings her faith to her work as CEO of Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief organization in the United States. Catholic Digest spoke with her recently about her large family (107 siblings!), her meeting with Pope Francis, and the fight against hunger.
Q Can you tell us about your 107 siblings?
A When my mother was pregnant with me in the fall of 1963, she learned that there were two little kids in a neighboring town who were suffering. My mother had been raised by a praying mom and dad. My grandparents, and my family from back as far as I know, were all Catholics, and my mother was taught that when much is given, much is required. That catapulted my mom into action. She picked up those two babies, and she brought them home. I am sure she did not imagine, nor did my father, that it would lead to a lifetime of service to children, but that was my mother’s vocation, her mission. And it was definitely informed by her beliefs growing up in the Catholic Church.
Q Your parents are listed in the National Adoption Hall of Fame. How did they go from two children to 107?
AIt happened organically over the years. Sometimes they came two by two, sometimes three by three. The most siblings I can recall joining our family at one time was five. Sometimes parents were not able to care for additional children and knew of my parents and of the love they provided, and they asked that additional children be entrusted to my parents’ care.
Q Your parents must have had incredible faith and trust.
A My mother suffered through some significant physical and medical challenges before she died eight years ago, but I don’t believe she would ever want anyone to feel badly for her. She lived a remarkable life. And she died a person of faith. So I believe my mother’s story is a story of faith and trust and triumph. She just could not look past people in need. And my father — talk about faith and trust! My mom kept saying “yes” to kids and my dad kept saying, “OK, but how are we going to feed them?”
Q Your dad is still active in the Church?
A My father continues to be a devout Catholic at the young age of 81. The church where I was baptized, and where I received my First Communion and Confirmation, and where I was married, is the same church where my father continues to serve — Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Opelousas, Louisiana. I tell him that if kids keep you young, then considering how many kids he has, he should be young for a long time!
Q Did you always know what you wanted to be?
A The path was set for me from the very beginning. I witnessed some really uncomfortable, unacceptable truths about challenges that exist in America, the richest country in the history of civilization. I decided I was going to be a lawyer as a little girl, because I wanted to be helpful to people like my brothers and sisters. And yet, I became a tax lawyer. I found myself being led this way, and at each opportunity, I prayed. I asked, “Are you sure that’s where you want me to go? A tax lawyer?”
When I felt or heard the answer was yes, I went. So I became a tax lawyer. Eventually I became the partner in charge of a law office in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. None of those things immediately made any sense to me. But there were things for me to do in each of those places — ways for me to grow, people for me to meet, and things for me to learn.
Q Let’s talk about where you are now. What is the most important message you want to share with readers?
A First, I want to thank them. I want them to understand how profoundly important the work of Catholics has been in this movement. Our first food bank was the very first food bank in the world, St. Mary’s in Phoenix, started by John van Hengel, our founder. He saw a need in his community. He noticed people struggling with homelessness, and quite a few were hungry. Yet there was quite a bit of food that was being wasted. This is just one man, a Catholic man, who saw a need and decided he would be part of the solution. He started this whole movement that now has reached around the world. I want Catholics to understand that the whole global movement started with them, and with us.
But I also want people to know that there are 37 million people in the United States — 11 million of whom are children and more than five million of whom
are elderly — who do not have consistent access to nutritious food, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. No matter where you look, no matter which county (in my case, parish, because I’m from Louisiana), no matter how wealthy it may appear on the surface, there is no county or parish in this country that does not have people living there who are suffering with food insecurity.
Today, more than 62 percent of Feeding America’s partners who actually distribute food directly to people in need are faith-based organizations, and many of them are Catholic. There’s work to be done for sure, but I’m proud of the work Catholics are doing.
Q Can you tell us about that work?
A One pantry that has stood out for me, because of the dignity and respect there, is the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk, Virginia. They sit right smack-dab in the middle of a really vulnerable community. Not only do they serve as a food pantry and provide access to a really nutritious mix of food, they also have a soup kitchen.
I had the benefit of eating at the diner and sat at the table with members of the community who rely on that pantry. The food was excellent! And the company was even better. They shared with me their own experiences and how powerful a force the basilica is in that community. One young woman had recently gotten married and had needed help getting herself on her feet and going to school. She was now in a position where she could be a volunteer. My experiences are replete with examples of people who just need a hand up and who are so invested in being a part of the solution for other people, as well.
Q You had another visit recently, with Pope Francis. Can you tell us about that?
AI never imagined that I would have an audience with Pope Francis. The humility of his message was so profound. Everything in that encounter was so consistent with how he represents himself — his kindness toward every single person in our group. When I had an opportunity to talk to him, I had some medals in my hand — for other Catholics, for my family, and some of the CEOs of food banks at Feeding America — and I was so struck that as he blessed the medals, he looked me in the eyes, held on to my hand, and asked me to pray for him.
We are all in need of prayer. And that example, and everything I experienced with him, was representative of humility of service. And it will inform my view of what it means to be a humble servant for the rest of my life, I’m sure.
Q What is your vision for the future?
A Let me give you another statistic. Every year, not counting household waste, 72 billion pounds of perfectly edible food is going to landfills. Feeding America is actually the largest food waste recovery organization in the United States. We recover more than 3.5 billion pounds, and we have line of sight for getting to 4 billion in the relative near term. And there’s no good reason why we can’t get even further than that. The good news is that this country has the resources it needs to feed its people.
Q What can Catholics and others do to help?
AI ask that readers become even better educated on what hunger looks like in their communities. We have a lot of information at FeedingAmerica.org that can help acquaint them with hunger and the challenges around hunger.
The second thing I’d ask is that they find their local food bank and find ways to be helpful there. We’re part of a network of 200 food banks and more than 60,000 food pantries and soup kitchens around the United States. There’s a food bank serving wherever you are.
Third, I ask that people use their voices. One of the most fundamental requirements for positive change to happen is for like-minded people to decide that it’s simply unacceptable for something to be true. I’d like readers to decide that it’s unacceptable for 37 million people in this country to not have access to nutritious food. And that together we will do what needs to be done to ensure that it’s no longer true.
I have line of sight toward a hunger-free America. This is a big, bold aspiration. But there’s a role for everyone to play. So I invite all who have a heart for service to join this movement and find ways to do even more. Because 37 million people who don’t know where they are going to get access to food is 37 million too many. We need the help of as many people as we can to change those statistics to zero. And zero would be the only acceptable statistic.
To learn more: Find a food bank in your area and for other information about Feeding America, visit FeedingAmerica.org.