Q&A: Catherine D'Amato

Photos by Michael Piazza

Catherine D’Amato isn’t a chef. She doesn’t work at a trendy restaurant or make a small-batch product for the shelves of artisanal grocery stores. Nevertheless, each month her work helps to feed more than 140,000 people—many of whom never thought they would need to rely on a food bank.

After all, people don’t aspire to depend on hunger-relief agencies. But it happens. One in 10 people in Eastern Massachusetts are at risk of hunger.

D’Amato came to the Greater Boston Food Bank as executive director in 1995 and became president and CEO in 1997. The food bank supplies more than 500 agencies, including food pantries and shelters, in 190 Eastern Massachusetts communities.

We spoke with D’Amato at her office in GBFB’s sprawling 117,000-square-foot distribution center in South Boston. Topics we covered include the evolution of food banking over her more than 30 years in the business, combatting hunger during the golden age of restaurants and food security as a policy issue.

EDIBLE BOSTON: Of all the social issues to dedicate your career to, why hunger?
CATHERINE D’AMATO: There are two aspects of it. One is that as a child, [I] grew up working class. My dad was a Teamster. He drove a bread truck for what was then called the Continental Baking Company. When I was 8, they opened a restaurant. He was Italian, immigrant, Roman Catholic, etc. So as kids we were taught, as were all of the employees: Anyone who came to the back door asking for food in ex-change for work, you bring people through the kitchen, sit them down and feed them.

Then when I went off to college at the University of San Francisco [in the 1970s], I worked as a church secretary for the First Presbyterian Church. We had a little food cupboard. My job was to answer the doorbell and put food in a bag and give it to people. It literally was a cupboard. Churchgoers brought in non-perishable foods every week and we’d give them away.

It seemed very inefficient because there were 11 or 12 other churches in the area that all had the same little cup-boards. We wrote a grant, and got what seemed to be a lot of money—$10,000—to start the Cathedral Hill Food Box program. So instead of having 11 or 12 little cupboards, we all put our efforts behind one. And that allowed us to get better food and understand what was going on for those individuals that would come.

We asked the question of other pantries, “Where do you get your food?” The common answer was, “We get it from our local food bank.” “What’s a food bank? It seems like we need a food bank for San Francisco.”

So food banks are a relatively new idea in the history of  fighting hunger?
I started the [first] San Francisco food bank in 1979 [with the help of Second Harvest in Phoenix, Arizona].

We rented an airplane hangar at the airport that was 1,700 square feet. We thought we had made it. We had gone from food on the back of trucks in parking lots to being distributed from a real building where you could receive things and you could store it and agencies could come. So it was a fairly new concept.

With all that said, why did I pick hunger? I think it picked me more than I picked it. [My] grandparents were farmers. My father worked for Continental Baking Company, for a dairy company, and then [my parents] became restaurateurs. I’d grown up in it. It made sense to me that [combatting hunger] was a worthwhile fight.

And so you came to Massachusetts? 
Yes. There were a lot of food banks that began in the late ’70s, early ’80s, and it was a west-to-east firestorm, because Feeding America—then Second Harvest—was in Phoenix, Arizona. So you can see: ’79 was San Francisco, by ’81 [the Greater Boston Food Bank] was incorporated.

I expect a lot of people wouldn’t initially think of hunger as such a pressing issue in Eastern Massachusetts, which has many wealthy areas.
It’s one-in-eight [people] nationally [at risk of hunger], one-in-nine for the state and one-in-10 for Eastern Mass. We have a slightly better situation, relatively. Wages are a little better. Access to services is better here in Eastern Mass.

That’s still a huge amount.
It still surprises people. The cost to live here is very high for families of three or four. It far exceeds what “poverty” is. Poverty is $23,000 for a family of four. You need $80,000 to sustain yourselves. Income equality shows itself in things like crime rate and the housing rate and addiction and mortality. When you look at countries that have income equality, they look very different than the United States.

And I know in Massachusetts, and particularly the Boston area, there is significant income inequality, so it would make sense that hunger would be a problem here as well.
It’s very reflective.

So how has feeding the hungry changed over the past couple decades?
It’s a very different day today than it was 20 years ago. 20 years ago, we were doing a little under eight million pounds of distribution. Today, it’s 60 million pounds of distribution. There was no website. Email didn’t exist. There was no inventory system. Everything was on paper. There was no pre-ordering. I think about it today—it seems like the cave days. I remember getting a grant from Fidelity. Talk about intergalactic! $300,000 to buy computers and go get the first piece of inventory software.

In a CEO role like this, where I’m sure it must feel  sometimes like the job will never be done, how do you measure success?
There is both the qualitative and the quantitative. The quantitative is much easier. Because you can say, “OK, here are our key performance indicators: how much food we’re going to acquire and distribute, how much money we’re going to raise, how many meals are we distributing.” We also measure something called AIB, a food safety inspection. Anything we can measure, we do.

And then the qualitative, I think that’s the culture. How people are feeling: Are they valued? Are they recognized? Wages matter. We [at the GBFB] went to $15 an hour October 1, but the good news is that we only had four or five people that were slightly under $15 [an hour] because we’d been progressively moving forward. If you’re fighting for a solution [regarding income inequality], you want to hopefully be part of the solution, versus part of the problem.

What stands out to you about your clients? 
Hunger is not always what you think it is. It’s women with children. You can definitely see stories like well-educated women with PhDs who are out of work, or they ended up with a sick child, or there was a divorce and that impacted their income, or they have an aging parent, or they might have someone in their family struggling with mental illness or an opioid addiction.

Things happen in our lives. I don’t know that anyone wakes up and says, “I’m going to be hungry today,” and purposely does it. It could touch you or it could touch me. I think that distance between us has gotten over time—in my 30, 40 years—much narrower. Which side of the desk you’re sitting at could flip.

I think for seven months on average in a 12-month period, people use a food pantry. There’s a lot of in-and-out, which speaks to people running on hard times.

Is it strange to still be fighting hunger during the golden age of restaurants, when everyone is spending more money on food?
Hunger is an outcome of poverty. It’s not about how many Michelin restaurants or James Beard chefs we have. Having grown up in the farming and then restaurant and culinary community, I think they’re very generous groups of people and understand that. They can’t end it. It’s policy that can really change it.

I can say to you very honesty that, after all of these years, I know three things about hunger: It’s always economical, it’s always political and it’s always personal. Those three things exist. They are constant whether it’s 1979 or it’s 2016. 

The good news is that the network of programs is so much stronger and evolved. The foods are healthier and better. Think about my [church] cupboard: canned goods, white bread and peanut butter and jelly. Today, 80% of our distribution or more is of a nutrient value. Fifty percent is a perish-able product. Nearly 30% is a fruit or vegetable.

It doesn’t surprise me that we haven’t solved it, but it’s a completely solvable problem. We know what to do, but we don’t do it. That’s the factor of it being political.

What are the best and worst parts of the job?
I had a good colleague say once, “I love my job, I just hate the work.” The best part is that I love my job. The worst part is that sometimes I don’t love the work that it takes to do the job, because sometimes that’s kind of relentless. The work still has to get done, and we can’t all do the fun stuff.

From eight million to 60 million pounds of food—that’s like, “OK, we’re now at 60. That’s the ‘bottom’ now.” You can’t retreat from 60. Our job is to keep the donor engaged—the food donor, the financial donor, the politician, the government official engaged—and keep the momentum so that we don’t lose ground, because it hurts people when that happens.

So I do love my job, and I like the work most of the time, but every nonprofit has to repeat their revenue every year. We’re running a business. You don’t get handed $40 million every year. You’ve gotta go get it.

So how is your approach to fighting hunger evolving in  2017 specifically?
If you look back in time, things like seatbelts and speed of cars, domestic violence, cigarette smoking, alcohol—[none of those were] seen as public health issues, and then became ones and were addressed in some policy manner. Food security is an emerging next issue.

When you go to the doctor’s office today for your annual, they’re going to ask, “How much do you drink? Do you smoke? Everything OK at home? Anything you want to talk about?” Imagine if we could get to the food security questions being asked at the doctor’s office. “Have you and your family had to skip meals in the last 12 months?” If the answer was yes, then there could be referrals. It’s going to take a collective sort of movement around it.

What can ordinary people do help combat hunger?
There are three things you can do. Give money; that’s probably one of the easiest ones. You can give food. And you can give time. I think the most important thing is to do some-thing. Little acts add up to very big impact.

This interview has been condensed for length.

This story appeared in the Spring 2017 issue.