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Heroine to the Hungry: Catherine D’Amato

Article and interview by Lou Carlozo, originally published in the June 2015 issue of Bostoniano.

Catherine D'Amato

Catherine D’Amato

Whether you grow up in the restaurant business or work at a food bank, your role and goal is to serve people so that a very basic need is met. And while many Italian Americans might take one path or the other into the world of food service, Catherine D’Amato knows both. When she was 8, her parents opened an Italian restaurant in California. And while still in college, she began a remarkable journey from theology student to food bank organizer and leader.

Today, D’Amato serves as the president and CEO of The Greater Boston Food Bank, a post she has held since 1997. The work never ends and often seems insurmountable. Last year, GBFB distributed more than 50 million pounds of healthful food, enough to feed more than half a million people in need throughout eastern Massachusetts. But if those numbers have grown over the years, so has the scope of D’Amato’s organization. Under her leadership, GBFB’s food distribution has increased six-fold, from 8 to nearly 50 million pounds of food per year. Today, the organization is a $65 million charitable enterprise, with nearly 550 agency partners and a state-of-the-art food distribution warehouse in the heart of Boston.

In her interview with Bostoniano, D’Amato talked about the challenges and rewards of her work, and how the fruits of her food bank labors have roots in a family farm started by her grandparents and the restaurant opened by her parents.

Bostoniano: Tell us about your Italian ancestry and upbringing.

Catherine D’Amato: My father’s parents were immigrants from east of Naples. My grandfather was a blacksmith; my grandmother came from a family of shepherds. They had no formal education and were illiterate in English. My grandfather came to Pennsylvania mining country to fabricate tools, and then the family went to Colorado. His signature [on the land deed] was literally an X.

We grew up on the family farm outside Colorado and my family wound up in California after the war. My parents opened a restaurant in Redding, north of San Francisco and Sacramento, an hour and a half from the Oregon border. It was called D’Amato’s and I grew up around that.

Bostoniano: How did those lessons pertain to what you do today?

D’Amato: My grandfather was a farmer; my father was a restaurateur. My father would say, “No one should ever work for food.” People would come to the back door and ask if they could work a few hours to get something to eat. And he would bring them in and feed them. The front door experience was with nuns or priests, where he would give them a free meal as well. That was a powerful message: The poor get fed and those who served the Lord get fed. That helped shape my views of social justice and fighting for the rights of the poor.

Catherine D'Amato and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh at the Greater Boston Food Bank's annual 'Chain of Giving' Thanksgiving event.

Catherine D’Amato and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh at the Greater Boston Food Bank’s annual ‘Chain of Giving’ Thanksgiving event.

Bostoniano: Take us from your young adult years to the time you became involved in food bank work.

D’Amato: First I studied theology, so my father joked that I would be the first woman pope. And I would joke back that there had to be a woman pope somewhere in history posing as a man. He would roll his eyes: “God forbid that ever happened.”
It’s not uncommon to fall into your career; the trail is not always a straight line. While I was at school in San Francisco, I needed to work, and so I became a clerical assistant at a Presbyterian church. There was a food cupboard and when people needed food, we gave it to them. Well, 10 churches were doing the same thing and I thought, “We could organize them.”

Bostoniano: So what did you do?

D’Amato: We set up this food pantry in the city and in the process I learned about how to set up a food bank — a place where the pantries went to get their food. So I moved from being a church secretary to the founder and administrator of the San Francisco Food Bank. I launched the program, and it was a privilege. And that’s how I fell into it. I understood the buying and selling of food. That was in 1979 and 30 some years later I’m doing the same thing, but with a different level of impact.

Bostoniano: With the recent recession, people who once supported themselves suddenly experienced great need. How did that affect the numbers you saw at the GBFB?

D’Amato: One in nine in eastern Massachusetts struggles to have enough to eat. And, the middle class’ risk has become more significant — from a job loss, a parent illness, paying for college, or a loss of housing. We see 90,000 people eating something from The Greater Boston Food Bank every week. That’s probably true for Chicago, Miami or any other big city. But are there more people in need or are we feeding more people? It’s a very reasonable question. We map the number of meals we put into communities to measure impact, and it’s powerful to see where the meal gaps are. We look at how much you make, how good your access to food is. But 90,000 is more than where we were before the recession.

Bostoniano: People typically don’t understand the difference between poverty and getting by. Can you help us grasp that divide?

D’Amato: In Boston, the federal poverty line for a family of four is $23,500. But you need $83,000 to sustain yourself: pay your rent, put gas in the car, feed your family, put clothing on your kids. So if my income is $40,000, I still need help from GBFB. I can’t make it. I need help.

Bostoniano: So you provide that help, but not just with food: It’s good food. Tell us about that.

D’Amato: The continuity and the nutrient value of our food supply are very strong and reliable. It goes back to the lesson of my father: No one should have to beg for this, there is plenty of food and we can share it and enjoy it. Getting that food to people is extremely gratifying. We just have to distribute it to the right people, the right way, for the right reasons. Of the 50 million pounds that GBFB distributes each year, 81 percent meets the highest nutritional ratings and 25 percent is comprised of fresh produce. Our Food Acquisition Team and Registered Dietitians are dedicated to supporting healthy lives and healthy communities.

Bostoniano: After more than three decades in this work, what are some of the greatest lessons you’ve learned?

D’Amato: If you bring it back to Italian Americans — a proud community where food is such a central part of our culture, of community, of gathering, of happiness and sadness — it’s all there. Food plays a big role in life, so it’s no wonder that I’m still fighting and committed to keep moving the work forward.

http://www.gbfb.org/

Catherine D'Amato speaking at the annual MEFAP Advocacy Breakfast

Catherine D’Amato speaking at the annual MEFAP Advocacy Breakfast

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