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Claire Babineaux-Fontenot to receive 2024 Laetare Medal, highest U.S. Catholic honor

The Louisiana-born Black Catholic businesswoman is the CEO of the food bank network Feeding America, the nation's largest nonprofit.

Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, CEO of Feeding America, is seen during the Fall 2019 Commencement exercises at her alma mater, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. (Doug Dugas/ULL)

Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, the CEO of Feeding America—the nation’s largest charity—has been named the 2024 recipient of the Laetare Medal, said to be the highest honor awarded to American Catholics.

The University of Notre Dame, which bestows the medal each year, announced the news on March 10, this year's Laetare Sunday. 

“Babineaux-Fontenot has devoted herself to answering Christ’s call to feed the hungry and care for those who are most vulnerable, and in doing so has created a network that sustains millions of Americans every day,” said outgoing Notre Dame president Fr John I. Jenkins, CSC.

“Under her visionary leadership, Feeding America has become a beacon of hope not only to the individuals and families it serves, but for all who share her vision of eliminating food insecurity in this country.”

The Black Catholic Louisiana native has led Feeding America as its third CEO since 2018, following decades of service in the private and public sectors. Babineaux-Fontenot is a graduate of the Southern University Law Center and Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law.

Her pivot to nonprofit work came after a breast cancer diagnosis, which caused her to consider the importance of her career’s impact on the world.

“I asked myself, ‘What if the best thing I could do in my career was the best thing I could conceivably do in my current job. Would that be OK?’” she told Notre Dame in a video interview

“In my heart I knew the answer was no. In that moment I decided, right there in that office, that I was going to leave the job that I was in.”

She was soon hired at Feeding America, the national food bank network founded in 1979 as America’s Second Harvest by the devout Catholic activist John Van Hengel—founder of the nation’s first food bank. Babineaux-Fontenot led the organization throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, when many relied on food charities for survival—especially young people. 

According to Feeding America, 1 in 7 people, and 1 in 5 children, live in food-insecure households in the United States.

“My parents dedicated their lives to the service of children,” Babineaux-Fontenot said. “I think of how deeply rooted our family experience was in their faith, how John chapter 13 rang through their works, ‘that they would be known by their love.’ And I’ve come to realize it informs everything—all that I aspire to be in the world.” 

Under Babineaux-Fontenot’s watch, Feeding America has become the nation's largest nonprofit by revenue, receiving more than $4 billion in private donations for the fiscal year ending in June 2023. Moreover, 98% of contributions go directly to the work of feeding the hungry.

The organization, which distributed 5.3 billion meals across its network in 2023, congratulated Babineaux-Fontenot on Monday for her new honor.

“Congratulations Claire!” they wrote on social media. “Your dedication inspires us all to make a difference.”

Despite its eye-popping budget and eminently measurable impact, Feeding America under Babineaux-Fontenot aims not only to serve the hungry but to end hunger itself in America. She says that goal is a matter of empowering people in need so that they will no longer have to rely on charitable support.

“Success for Feeding America is having a place at the table in thriving communities where people are creating solutions for themselves, and an America where no one—no one—has to wonder where their next meal is going to come from, or the one after that or the one after that,” she said.

Babineaux-Fontenot is the sixth Black recipient of the Laetare Medal, all since 1990 and all but one during the past decade. Finance executive Carla Harris and environmental activist Sharon Lavigne were back-to-back awardees in 2021 and 2022. The award has been bestowed in almost every year since 1883, honoring a Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.”

As in previous years, the Laetare Medal will be awarded during Notre Dame’s Commencement exercises on Sunday, May 19, in South Bend, Indiana. Babineaux-Fontenot will be a featured speaker and the event will begin at 9:30am ET in Notre Dame Stadium.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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