NEW YORK – Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, the chief executive of the nation’s largest nonprofit working to feed the hungry nationwide, will receive the 2024 Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame, one of the oldest and most prestigious honors given to American Catholics.

Babineaux-Fontenot is the CEO of Feeding America, a national network of more than 200 food banks and 60,000 charitable and faith-based partners that works to rescue, store and distribute food to more than 49 million people facing hunger each year. Babineaux-Fontenot has led the organization for the last six years.

Notre Dame president Father John Jenkins touted her leadership as a “beacon of hope.”

“Claire 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,” Jenkins said in a March 10 statement. “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.”

In recent years, Babineaux-Fontenot has steered the organization through difficult times, as the COVID-19 pandemic drastically increased the amount of food insecurity nationwide. In 2022 the organization became the nation’s largest charitable organization, according to Forbes. And then last year, the organization distributed 5.3 billion meals.

Babineaux-Fontenot, though, acknowledges there is still great food insecurity in the United States. According to statistics on the Feeding America website, there are over 10 million children that are food insecure in the United States, and 34 million people total.

“That means we need to continue to get the word out. We should help people to understand that the game isn’t over,” Babineaux-Fontenot said in a March 10 statement. “Notre Dame knows a thing or two about football, right? You don’t leave the field before the game is over. The game’s not over with hunger.”

Babineaux-Fontenot said the organization’s current focus is finding new ways to address food insecurity through congressional action. The organization recently announced a partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services to explore the link between food insecurity and health outcomes.

“Success for Feeding America is having a place at the table in thriving communities where people are creating solutions for themselves,” said Babineaux-Fontenot. “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.

“That’s my vision, and it’s all possible. These are not pipe dreams,” she added.

Prior to joining Feeding America, Babineaux-Fontenot was executive vice president of finance and global treasurer at Walmart, where she spent 13 years on the leadership team. Come 2015, Babineaux-Fontenot said she “was being called by God to a higher purpose,” which is how she ended up at Feeding America.

Hunger is a cause Babineaux-Fontenot said has always been close to her heart. She grew up in Opelousas, Louisiana. She has 108 siblings through a combination of birth, adoption, and fostering – many of whom had faced neglect, abuse and food insecurity before joining the family, she said.

Babineaux-Fontenot holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette; a Juris Doctor from Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and a Master of Laws in taxation from Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law in Dallas. In 2020, she was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine and was featured in the 2022 Forbes “50 over 50” list.

The Laetare Medal is announced each year on the fourth Sunday of Lent, known as Laetare Sunday and dates back to 1883. Notre Dame established the award as an American counterpart of the Golden Rose, a papal honor that goes back to the 11th century.

Previous recipients of the award include President Joe Biden, President John F. Kennedy, Dorothy Day, former Speaker of the House John Boehner, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Sister Norma Pimentel and Hollywood actor Martin Sheen. Last year’s recipient was Sister Rosemary Connelly, chairwoman of the board of the Misericordia Foundation, a nonprofit organization on Chicago’s south side that provides a home and custodial care to children with disabilities from birth to age 6.

The Laetare Medal bears the Latin inscription Magna est veritas et praevalebit (“Truth it is mighty, and it shall prevail”). Every year the award goes to a Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences and illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.”

Babineaux-Fontenot will receive the 2024 Laetare Medal at the University’s commencement ceremony in May.

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg