Catherine D’Amato Has Been Fighting Hunger Throughout Her Career
Catherine D'Amato: Along the way I learned about partnering with other for-profit and nonprofit organizations
For Catherine D’Amato, feeding the hungry has always been about providing food and doing it in a way that preserves or enhances personal dignity, an ethos she embraced throughout a career that ultimately brought her to lead The Greater Boston Food Bank.
This is her story.
My interest in helping to feed the hungry was sparked at age eight when my parents opened a restaurant. We were taught that if anyone came to the back door to ask for food in exchange for work, we were to bring them to the front of the restaurant, give them a seat, and feed them.
That first impression stayed with me and shaped my thinking when I studied theology, human rights, and social justice at the University of San Francisco.
It was as a college student that I really dove into hunger advocacy. Really, I fell backwards into what I know today as food banking, by working as a church secretary and running a tiny food cupboard in a church off Sacramento Avenue in San Francisco.
Through that job I learned there were many similar food cupboards, which led to a group of us organizing and creating a more robust food pantry program. From there we learned about this thing called food banking, where pantries get their food. Which led me to start the San Francisco Food Bank in 1979.
A few years later, I moved to Massachusetts, taking over as executive director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. While the issues
were similar, I was challenged to work in a rural environment where financial resources and corporate support was very limited
To be able to afford to provide fresh produce to those in need, I started the first food bank farm in the United States on 60 acres of fertile land in Hadley, MA, where it still operates today. In the span of three years, we built the program to the point where it was delivering over 200,000 pounds of fresh produce annually.
Along the way I learned about the many factors that helped us succeed, including partnering with other for-profit and nonprofit organizations and working all the financial levers of nonprofits from fundraising to grant writing, and then creating a retail food line called Food Bank Foods to raise funds, and of course creating the first Food Bank Farm.
In the mid-1990s, I was recruited to take on the leadership of The Greater Boston Food Bank (GBFB.)
GBFB began as a formal organization in 1981, but the vision behind it was a woman named Kip Tiernan, who was well known in Boston as a champion for social justice, the rights of women, and the poor, and who was a great inspiration to me.
During my tenure, GBFB grew from a local nonprofit focused primarily on Boston with a $2 million annual budget into a $180-million-a-year charitable business that today serves a network of 600 dedicated food distribution partners in 190 cities and towns across nine counties in eastern Massachusetts. In 2021, GBFB, while marking its 40th anniversary, will distribute its billionth pound of food.
Among the many initiatives over the past 25 years of which I'm proud is GBFB establishing itself as a trailblazer in prioritizing nutritious food and bringing more produce, protein, and dairy into the emergency food system. GBFB also sponsored the first study of the health-related costs of hunger and food insecurity in Massachusetts. As the country’s first food bank to hire a medical doctor, GBFB today has an epidemiologist and two registered dietitians on staff.
This past year was the most challenging of my entire career, as the pandemic spurred an unprecedented increase in demand for food assistance. The constant demand to help those who were suffering tested my team’s ability to deepen and strengthen relationships, especially as GBFB’s food distribution partners reported a 113% increase in clients served, to an eye-popping 600,000 clients per month – about 9% of the state’s population. I’m enormously proud to say we and our partners met this historic increase in demand for food assistance.
A common theme runs through the way society responds to hunger: It’s always about economics. It’s always political. And it’s always personal. When some politicians decide to change the federal Supplemental Nutritional Access Program (SNAP), or the economy takes a turn for the worst, or a family experiences a job loss or illness, more children and families go hungry. Regardless, we need to respond.
When people ask me if I think we can end hunger, I say, Yes! But it requires both political will and public will. While these two forces don’t always align at the same time, I’m optimistic that now, after a horribly difficult year, and more, we can and must work collaboratively to leverage our resources and awareness to increase food security so that individuals and families have regular access to healthy foods.