By Kelley Walker Perry, Contributing Writer
BOSTON – Hunger sometimes keeps Catherine D’Amato awake at night, but the suffering is not her own.
Empathy – and feeding hungry people – come naturally to D’Amato, who is president and chief executive officer of the Greater Boston Food Bank (GBFB). As the granddaughter of Italian immigrant farmers and the daughter of restaurateurs, she has always known that food and love go hand-in-hand.
She learned the correlation in early childhood. People hoping to trade work for food often knocked at the back door of D’Amato’s Restaurant in Redding, California. Vincent D’Amato, who drove a bread truck to support the family during hard times before opening the restaurant, had another idea. He brought these hungry folks inside, sat them down at a table, and offered them respect and a nutritious meal. No charge.
Vincent taught his daughter to work hard – often starting preparations at the restaurant by 5 a.m., before the breakfast rush – and to always help others. Their own family had food, shelter and plenty of love to go around. “We each have our own journey that informs our choices. It’s no wonder that I committed my life’s work to helping others gain access to food,” she said.
D’Amato earned her undergraduate degree in Theology at the University of San Francisco. Her education allowed her to explore the moral issues of justice and equity. It also honed her natural skills in critical thinking and deductive reasoning.
“I wasn’t really thinking about the job market,” she admitted.
Finding her purpose
She soon realized that her particular skill set would be better devoted to food banking than to a faith-based career. “Hunger is agnostic, even in this period of extreme beliefs that polarize us,” she said. “Hunger has no political affiliation. It can show up at anyone’s doorstep. It can happen to all of us.”
At Harvard University and Smith College, she learned how to manage a nonprofit business. From running a small food pantry in California in the 1970s, to establishing the first food bank farm in the United States in western Massachusetts, to providing transformative leadership at GBFB since 1995, D’Amato’s lifelong career has been about feeding large numbers of hungry people.
Pandemic presented new challenges
And then came COVID-19. Soon, the food bank was overwhelmed with those in need. Normally they maintained five or six weeks’ worth of food inventory; now they ran on enough stock for one week and prayed for the supply chain to hold. “Nobody was prepared. It required incredible fortitude. We just ran ourselves ragged,” she said.
It took about seven months to assess the supply and demand in order to meet the community’s new level of need. D’Amato just gritted her teeth and tightened an already tightly-run ship. “Before COVID, it was about resiliency and pivoting. Now, we’re persevering,” she said.
But under D’Amato’s guidance, nothing simply perseveres – it flourishes. From people to vegetable gardens to nonprofit food banks, everything she touches experiences new life. Growth at the food bank has doubled in less than 10 months, and lost inventory is practically zero.
Nothing goes to waste – even genuine garbage has a purpose. It’s a lesson she learned early at the family restaurant, and one she tries to impart to others.
Eradicating food insecurity is D’Amato’s ultimate goal. “Issues of equity are very important to me, and I am more conscious of them in this present stage of life,” she said.
But, she admitted, another human rights issue or environmental challenge might spark a fire for others.
“We all have it in us to do something,” she told young graduates during a baccalaureate speech at Boston University in May. “Don’t be indifferent.”
D’Amato practices what she preaches, although her idea of “doing something” is extraordinary. Besides running New England’s largest hunger relief organization, she’s also sung the national anthem at Fenway Park, received honorary doctorate degrees and various prestigious awards, and influenced the world around her for permanent good.
She is considering retirement soon. But her life’s work, spanning over 40 years, will continue to grow.