(Miss this week’s Leadership Brief? This interview below was delivered to the inbox of Leadership Brief subscribers on Sunday morning, March 14; to receive weekly emails of conversations with the world’s top CEOs and business decisionmakers, click here.)
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot believes it is possible to end chronic hunger and food insecurity in America. Babineaux-Fontenot is the CEO of Feeding America, one of the largest charities in the U.S. and the largest devoted to hunger relief. It is one of the great stains on the richest country on earth that as many as 35 million of our neighbors, classmates and fellow citizens are chronically hungry.
And like so many social ills, the pandemic has made things worse. Feeding America’s latest data projects that the number of people that face food insecurity has swollen to 42 million. Over the past year, Feeding America’s nationwide network of 200 food banks provided more than 6 billion meals. “It has taken me a while to have gotten to the point where I can say it and keep talking because it takes my breath away to think about that many people struggling,” says Babineaux-Fontenot.
Feeding America’s work was recognized this year with a series of grants from MacKenzie Scott, who has pledged to give away most of her fortune from her Amazon stake. Scott gave what Babineaux-Fontenot—a lawyer and tax and finance expert who was part of Walmart’s senior leadership team, before a cancer diagnosis prompted her to shift gears and move to Feeding America in 2018—calls “transformational gifts” to 42 of Feeding America’s food banks around the country. Scott then surprised the CEO with a $20 million donation for the national office. Feeding America will invest those funds in communities of color, which are disproportionately impacted by food insecurity and the pandemic. The federal government also plays an essential role in addressing hunger—most experts agree the gap cannot be filled by charities alone—and the recently passed stimulus bill included provisions to put more Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit food dollars in the pockets of families in need, in addition to other measures.
Babineaux-Fontenot, who grew up in rural Louisiana, has an unusual personal history. Her grandparents on both sides were sharecroppers, and Babineaux-Fontenot has 107 brothers and sisters (through a combination of birth, foster care and adoption). She recently joined TIME for a video conversation on her timetable for eliminating chronic hunger, how her experience at Walmart has benefited her current position and the problem of ugly carrots.
(This interview with Feeding America CEO Claire Babineaux-Fontenot been condensed and edited for clarity.)
What does being chronically hungry do to the body and to the soul?
Nothing good. The building block for every good outcome that people have starts with them getting access to nutrition. It is just so foundational. Being denied predictable, consistent access to nutritious food has so many negative implications for your body. Serious chronic illnesses often result from the lack of access to food.
And then there’s another aspect. I’m trying my best to learn as much as I can about trauma. What does it mean for your spirit as a parent if you think about your obligation and your duty to your children and when you don’t have the means to provide them with food? What does it do to the rest of you? It has implications for your body, but it also has deep implications for a person’s overall well-being.
How does hunger impact young people in particular?
There is data that talks about all the connections that the brain needs to make in the first 1,000 days in order to set a human being on the best possible learning journey. When people are deprived in infancy, there are certain connections that their brains never make. There’s certain challenges that they will have to fight, to compensate for, that they may never overcome. And then when you get into grade school, that deprivation results in substantially diminished outcomes for them in their learning, in their physical health. But there’s also a stigma attached. How many kids, for instance, are suffering under the weight of lunch shaming, where if people know that she received free or reduced lunch, then you’re an outcast?
The elderly have their own set of issues around hunger. What other groups particularly concern you?
The country has more empathy for children and the elderly than it does for working-class people. For people who are working two, three jobs. A food-insecure child lives inside of a food-insecure household.
This next question is almost glib and I’m sure you get asked it all the time, but why does the richest country on earth have this terrible food-insecurity problem?
I have asked myself that question. And the answer is, there’s no good reason. But I do believe there are some factors. So let me unpack one that I think is critically important. When we think about ourselves as a country, there’s a narrative that we have learned, that we are the land of milk and honey. Hunger is so antithetical to that narrative. And it’s true, [America] is rich with opportunities. It’s just that those opportunities are not equal, right?
I want to work to ensure that it’s not true once I’m done, though, because it is solvable. So I think the first barrier to solving it is to acknowledge that it exists. And I really don’t believe we had a raised public consciousness around food security in this country. And with that big dark cloud of COVID came a silver lining. One of those silver linings is that it brought this issue out of the shadows at a time when we couldn’t look away; we couldn’t ignore it. We’re all at our houses, watching television, and we see all of these people lined up for food, We see in San Antonio 10,000 cars lined up. Some of the cars look like the car we might drive.
The economic disruption has pushed more people into hardship. Has that changed perceptions of hunger in America?
Throughout the pandemic, about 40% of the people who have turned to us for help have never before relied upon the charitable food system. Never. So hopefully, this notion of “Well, there’s not that much hunger in America, and the people who are hungry, they just probably don’t work hard,” I think it just blew all of that up. People have said, “Oh, what if one day, due to no fault of my own, I didn’t have a job? What if the business shuts down?” I think raising public consciousness is absolutely essential to progress. And then when we get the innovative juices of this country flowing, when we determine there’s a problem, we can do all kinds of things.
What is the fundamental problem?
We produce more than enough food to feed every person in this country. We throw away more than enough food to ensure that every person in this country has enough to eat. We’ve got a matching challenge. Before the pandemic, there was a statistic that said, not counting household waste, that about 72 billion lb.—perfectly edible food—were going to landfills.
How can that be addressed?
We have systems in place that perpetuate how things are right now. Part of the answer is to change systems, for instance, that make it sometimes more expensive for a company to give food away than to throw it away.
How is that possible?
Let me give you an example. Do you remember when farmers were throwing away milk and eggs and things like that? There were at least two things at play there. And one of them was that that food was produced for a particular channel. And to take this raw milk, or this milk that’s normally produced in mass quantities, and to customize that milk to serve the people who needed the food would have been a really expensive endeavor.
What channel was it produced for?
Schools and restaurants.
And so converting the big bulk-food-service shipment into containers for distribution to individual households was too expensive?
But in many instances, you are able to get that food into the hands of the community.
We are the largest food-waste recovery organization in the United States of America. It’s billions upon billions of pounds. [For its most recent fiscal year, the Feeding America network rescued 4 billion lb. of food, up from 3.6 billion lb. the previous year.]
Where does that rescued food come from?
One of the primary sources of food that we provide inside of our system would be food from retail. We have relationships with grocers. Rather than allow food to spoil, they gift that food to us and we provide it to people in need. We have relationships with restaurant partners where, rather than have food that didn’t sell gets wasted, we can match it with people in need of help.
Sometimes manufacturers might have a big load of cereal, and somehow the boxes got bent, so that the American consumers might not be inclined to purchase it on a shelf. But it’s perfectly good. So we match that with people facing hunger.
You do this work all across the food chain, right, including with farmers?
We have long had relationships with farmers, but we are deepening those relationships. Technology is really helping with all of this. So part of the waste story in the country is not just with those landfills, but the agricultural waste, which gets plowed back under because it’s not acceptable for the American consumer, but it’s perfectly edible. I refer to it as ugly carrots. So we’re working even more closely with farmers to develop relationships that do that matching as well.
Back to your mission, you have a vision of a country where no one is hungry. This is a solvable problem, there can be an end to this?
We can solve for chronic hunger in this country. We sometimes talk about feeding the line. I don’t believe there’s anyone better on the planet in matching people who need food with the food that they need than our network. And then the other side of it is shortening the line. And shortening the line comes from the fact that we do not have an aspiration as part of our mission for people to perpetually need to come to us. We can actually see a not so distant future, by the end of this decade or certainly by the one after that; there’s no reason why in this country that people should struggle with chronic hunger.
By the end of the decade?
I don’t believe that we will eradicate chronic hunger. By the end of the decade, I do believe that we can change the face of chronic hunger in this country. By the end of the decade, we can have tested and learned and have proven practices for how to do that. We can be in the process of scaling things that we’ve already learned. And I’d say over the course of a couple of decades, I think we can get there.
You worked at Walmart, which is famous for its logistical expertise. What about the Walmart approach has been helpful?
I’m kind of accustomed to big, hairy problems. There’s something about being inside of an organization where you take on those big kinds of challenges and get to the other side of it. That helps you to have the confidence about what’s possible. That you can have these big bold things that you aspire to.
And what about on logistics?
From the logistics side, I know just enough to be dangerous. But I know a lot of people who know a lot of stuff about logistics, and Walmart’s one of our many, many partners, and they leverage their insights on logistics on a regular basis.
What should well-meaning people that read an interview like this and feel moved, what should they do? Should they quit their job and work in a food bank? Or should they give money? How should people help this solve this problem?
I really don’t think that the answer for everyone is to quit their jobs and work in a food bank. I do believe that the answer for everyone is to find their unique path to being of service to this work. And there are lots of different ways we can do that. I would encourage people to start by knowing as much as they can about what’s happening with hunger in America. At feedingamerica.org, we try to help with the education process. I’d also encourage them, if they think about the place that they’re from, or the communities that they care the most about, I’d encourage them to reach out to the food bank that serves that community and ask the members of that local community team at that food bank, What do you need? And based upon the answer, then evaluate what you’re prepared to provide, and then do it. And I have this little expression I’ve been using the pandemic. And maybe someone else used it before and it’s just somewhere in my head, but “the giver receives,” and it’s just so true.
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