Catherine D'Amato
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Catherine D'Amato

President & CEO, Greater Boston Food Bank

From her earliest memories of visiting her grandparents' farm in Colorado to her current role as President & CEO of The Greater Boston Food Bank, Catherine D'Amato has always found her life to be centered around feeding the hungry. When she was eight years old, her parents—second-generation Italian-Americans—opened a restaurant in northern California, and she was active in helping to run it. "Food has a central position in an ethnic family," she says, "so working with food has always been second nature to me."

The restaurant closed only two days a year—Thanksgiving and Christmas—and these were holidays the family spent together. Catherine recalls taking a drive with her parents one particular Thanksgiving Day. In that pre-self-serve era, her father stopped for gas and slipped the attendant an extra five dollars. When Catherine asked why such a generous tip, her father replied, "No one should have to work on Thanksgiving."

Additionally, when the restaurant was open, no one who was hungry was ever turned away. "If someone came to eat, we fed them," she says simply. "If they offered to wash dishes in exchange for food, the answer was always no."

These were lessons in giving she never forgot.

Developing an Appetite for Feeding Those in Need

You might say she has been giving ever since. A Theology major at the University of San Francisco, she began her social action career by organizing a collaboration among the food pantries at ten local churches in the city. She remembers asking a colleague at the time where the food pantries got their supplies and being told from a food bank. "What's that?" she inquired.

The concept of a food bank—that is, a central facility where food is gathered, sorted, and then distributed to organizations and individuals in need—intrigued Catherine so much that she left the Council of Churches to join the San Francisco Food Bank, still in its infancy.

At the time, new food banks were opening across the country. When The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts was established, Catherine was invited to join the management team. A singer, composer, and lyricist, Catherine had traveled the country as part of the Youth in Music program and been captivated by the Berkshires. "Coming from California, I'd never seen anything like it," she recalls. "All the lakes and a plethora of green, as opposed to the brown hills and red rocky soil of California." She eagerly accepted the job in a part of the country she had fallen in love with.

Gradually, however, Catherine became convinced that she could do more. She set her sights on Boston, whose food bank is the largest hunger-relief organization in New England and one of the largest in the country. She joined as President & CEO in 1995.

Growing The Greater Boston Food Bank

Catherine's Business Management Certificates from Harvard University and Smith College have come in handy for her at The Greater Boston Food Bank. Under her gutsy leadership, staff has been provided with basic benefits that had been lacking previously, such as a living wage and health care from the first day of employment.

Important programs have been implemented, such as Kids Cafes, operated in partnership with local Boys & Girls Clubs, serving nutritious meals five days a week to nearly 1,700 disadvantaged children. The BackPack program provides nutritious food over the weekend to children in need. The Brown Bag program provides families and seniors with 15-pound, supplemental bags of nutritious groceries once a month. A nutrition program has been launched. And Catherine is proud that the food at The Food Bank is "of the highest quality and safer than ever"—always at the top of her priority list.

Another of the accomplishments under Catherine's leadership was the opening in March 2009 of the Yawkey Distribution Center of The Greater Boston Food Bank, a 117,000-square-foot facility that will allow The Food Bank to significantly increase its distribution to eventually accommodate 50 million pounds of food and grocery products annually, up from 34 million pounds.

In addition, The Food Bank has grown to provide nutritious food to nearly 600 hunger-relief organizations, serving local food pantries, soup kitchens, homeless and residential shelters, youth programs, senior centers, and day-care centers. Through these auspices, more than 394,000 (and possibly as many as 545,000) hungry residents are fed each year in nine counties and 190 cities and towns in eastern Massachusetts.

Behind all the statistics, Catherine sees the faces of the people her agency feeds. "A lot of them are nice people who never imagined they would find themselves at a food pantry—until they lost their jobs and their benefits ran out," she says. She has seen elders who had never tasted yogurt before asking her what that delicious food was that tasted sweet, like ice cream. She has seen a child who had never seen an orange bouncing it like a ball because he didn't know what it was. She has seen ethnic people asking what on earth to do with a Thanksgiving turkey, and sharing with them the culinary traditions of each of their homelands. And she has seen the "pain, shame, and embarrassment" of people who have to come to ask for food.

She also has witnessed the genuine appreciation of those who receive it. "By providing people with food, we might help a family not lose their home this month, or get clothes for their children, or school supplies," she says. "The number-one reason why people work here is our mission."

Extra Helpings Are Always Appreciated

While Catherine has a "great, highly dedicated" staff of 80 handling warehouse operations, development, marketing, food acquisition, nutrition, and more, the organization relies heavily on volunteers to help meet the demand. According to Catherine, there are three key ways that volunteers can support the Food Bank: money, food, and time. "Grand Circle Foundation gives generously of all three," she says.

At first, Harriet and Alan Lewis, while sympathetic to her organization, weren't sure it fit with the Foundation's new focus on schools and youth-based organizations. "But Catherine reminded us that thanks to The Food Bank, two thousand kids a day are eating who didn't eat before," says Harriet Lewis. "It's had to teach a hungry child." In contrast, once a child is fed, he or she is better able to do homework and other activities, or even sleep. "Through Catherine's strong leadership, she convinced us that the Food Bank plays an important role in our goal, after all. And we've benefited from her guidance ever since."

Now, under the leadership of Grand Circle associate Tom Whearty, Grand Circle staff volunteer regularly at The Food Bank, and the Lewises themselves have joined the volunteers. "They're very unique, involved leaders," Catherine observes. The Lewises also invited Catherine to join Grand Circle Foundation's Community Advisory Group, a coalition of leaders from the Foundation's long-term nonprofit partners in Boston. As part of that group, she enjoyed engaging with her peers as they sought solutions to common issues.

Challenges remain, however. For The Food Bank, the irony to Catherine is that "there are voluminous amounts of food in this country," as she puts it. "The economy, a death in the family, illness, poverty—there are many reasons why people need it. There's ample food. We should be able to get it to the people who need it."

It is with that in mind that Catherine is unafraid to ask for help for her organization. "I have nothing to lose in this game," she says. "It's not about me. It's about someone whose voice is silent. My passion is to be able to do something for people who aren't able to do it for themselves."

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