Catherine D'Amato #42


The Great Boston Food Bank



One in eight Americans is hungry, one in six is in poverty, and one in nine in Eastern Massachusetts needs our help.


Interview by Heidi Legg

In our two part series on food (Last week we interviewed Sutton Kiplinger from The Food Project) exploring the divide between those in need and those who are part of a burgeoning food movement for micro-farming, CSAs, and backyards with bees and chickens, I sat down with Catherine D’Amato who is coming up on her twentieth anniversary of running the Greater Boston Food Bank.

Catherine is a native Californian, and as a young student ran the first food pantry in San Francisco. D’Amato has been a tireless advocate for the hungry for 32 years. She assumed her leadership position at The Greater Boston Food Bank in 1995, after heading up the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. Under D’Amato’s vision and leadership, The Greater Boston Food Bank has been transformed into a nearly $60 million charitable business, an organization that now leads the region in providing nutritious food to approximately 550 hunger relief agencies. These agencies annually serve as many as 545,000 hungry residents of the nine counties and 190 cities and towns of eastern Massachusetts. 

We discuss the focus on accessing fresh produce, how people can get involved, the future of 3-D printing, and backyard farming. Her views on social leadership for a new generation of youth deeply in debt were insightful.

How did the Greater Boston Food Bank begin?

It began in 1981, as a formal organization, but the vision behind it was a woman named Kip Tiernan, who’s well known in Boston as a champion for social justice, the rights of women, and the poor. She started Rosie’s Place, one of the first shelter meal programs for women, because women were standing in line with men and not being fed because shelter soup kitchens traditionally were geared towards men – so much so that women were dressing up as men in order to eat. From there she asked ‘how do I keep feeding them?’ She went to Chicago to look at the Chicago Food Depository and said, ‘we need one of these,’ and so the Greater Boston Food Bank, then known as the Boston Food Bank, was born in 1981.

How did she raise the funding?

She gathered a gaggle of friends around her, like-minded individuals who cared about the issue and were willing to create a corporation, and they started to raise some money. My understanding is that in that first year they distributed about 100,000 pounds from the back of a station wagon and they felt really good about it.

How many pounds do you deliver today?

Now it’s about fifty million pounds a year. And if she were still alive, she’d be the first to say to you, ‘it’s not enough.’

How many individuals are you reaching in Massachusetts?

We serve over 500,000 people in our service area of eastern Massachusetts each year and this number is growing. Today:

·      one in nine individuals

·      one in five are over 60

·      one in three are children under the age of 18

If you only focused on food that would be a lower cost issue. It doesn’t cost as much to feed everyone in need as it would to house them, educate them or give them other types of resources or literacy to move in the world. It’s a solvable problem and it does take financial resources and those resources, whether it’s government or private, have to have a continuity not,  ‘here’s a grant’ one year and then we’ll see you later and we’re going to move on to something else. You have to have continuity that provides sustainability and an organization like the Greater Boston Food Bank to have impact.

Which governments have been able to give you that commitment year after year?

The emergency food assistance program where we actually purchase food for the food bank has been great for us.  There’s a line item, protected by the Greater Boston Food Bank, for all the state. It’s extraordinarily generous. It’s about $15 million now. That buys food.

The State of Massachusetts gives you $15 million to go buy food?

Correct. Annually, but then again each year the need could grow or be different, and so that $15 million and the cost of food or transportation goes up, but we are deeply grateful because not all states have that. On the federal government side, you’re dealing with federal commodities. It falls under the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and then you also have, which we don’t participate in fully, entitlement programs like Food Stamps or WIC or school food service programs, and they fluctuate. 

There are three things I know about hunger after 30+ years are that it is always economical. Do you have enough food or do you not? It’s always political. With a new leader in or a new agenda, sometimes the funding goes up or the funding goes down, and lastly, it’s always personal. One of those three elements, if not all, plays a factor when we discover one in eight Americans is hungry, one in six is in poverty, and one in nine in Eastern Massachusetts needs our help.

What’s a way for those of us not in the food production industry or politics or a government employee to help your mission?

It’s actually quite simple. You must determine where you believe you can make a contribution or a difference, and then do it. If you believe that writing a check is the most productive way you can do it, write the check. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s the greater Boston Food Bank or your local food pantry or an advocacy organization or your religious organization – do something.

Support organizations that are trying to make a difference but also have impact. Some people feel very strongly about donating their time because they don’t have a checkbook or they don’t have the financial resources, and that is equally valuable.

Should people donate their time at a food pantry or with you?

Either. The local issue for some is more important: ‘I want to be in my community. I want to be on the ground level. I want to be in Framingham.” Terrific. For others, it’s the Greater Boston Food Bank: it might be coming to volunteer here at the facility or at one of our locations (at school or elder congregate feeding site). It might be a mobile distribution – serving veterans or kids. There are lots of ways to get involved. 

You have to want to be engaged in your community. Government can help, yes. But you can help, too, and it isn’t just one segment’s responsibility. It isn’t just private philanthropy and it isn’t just government or state using public resources. And it isn’t just you or me but when we put it together, it makes a very big difference.

A lot of people think using grocery store food that would normally expire or sits on shelves as a source for a food pantry or food bank is a positive thing because it reduces landfill waste and helps with waste management. There is also a huge movement, as we saw with The Food Project interview,  to have more fresh produce and vegetables for people who can’t afford it. Today this split appears more gapping as CSAs and micro-farming are in full vogue for those who can afford what’s fresh and organic. Where do you sit on this fence?

The Greater Boston Food Bank has been committed since day one of my leadership to nutrition and quality, and ‘fresh’ is a significant part of nutrient quality and the right calories that people will need. People without food also have the right to food and to good food. The Greater Boston Food Bank, years and years ago, established a nutrient quality index. We measure our inventory and 80% of our inventory has to meet the nutrient quality index. That allows us to assume – it’s a broad assumption – that the food you take from the food bank is roughly 80% nutrient rich. We know that what local pantries take from us has a high quality and therefore can offer individuals and families greater nutrition.

Right now, about 25% of our distribution is fresh produce. When I came, we couldn’t move a carrot. We couldn’t even try. We didn’t know how. We didn’t have the mechanism or capability. A huge element of pride for this organization is that today it’s 25% and we’re committed to having it be 35%. People deserve the right to good food.

Whether it is in the supply chain of waste, that’s a different issue, but I can assure you we’ve recently done a terrific study on ‘how do we get more fruits and vegetables into the homes of children and families?’ and the study unequivocally showed that kids like vegetables, kids like fruit, and parents want that for their children and they need the access to it.

Where do you get your fresh produce? Do you use local farms?

CSA is a really good option. In a local community, there’s vibrancy. How do you connect that pantry or buy some shares and help raise some funds? At one pantry, your local CSA might be a really good option. At pantry B, there might not be that option and the dependency on the food bank might be greater. Things like produce gift cards, CSAs, farmer’s markets, and connecting organizations to their local farm communities are important parts of it.

Think of your audience for New York, Massachusetts, Canada, and California. They have different realities. California produces 40% of the produce for America. It’s a very different reality in California than if you live in Massachusetts where we have a ten-week growing season. We love our farmers. We want to maximize. I’m a native Californian. I understand it. My grandparents were farmers. I get it. So when you think of food coming across the United States, it moves from west to east and by the time it gets to Boston, we’re either going to eat it, freeze it, or throw it in the ocean. There’s just not any place else for it to go. So, you want to work with your local farmers, help people understand freezing, canning. It’s fascinating that all of that is back.

Do you feel you’ve been called to be a leader of this movement?

I appreciate the metaphor and my undergraduate is in theology, so it has a different kind of meaning to me. I’ve been very fortunate to take what I’m passionate about and what I learned from my grandparents and my parents and execute that in a charitable business that can truly make a difference in people’s lives. Simply stated: when we do our job, people eat. When we don’t do our job, people don’t eat. 

That is a powerful metaphor for our team to be able to know that we helped somebody we will never see or never know. I think of myself more as a voice and a reminder to keep that issue present. It’s deeply, deeply troubling when we have enough food and we have enough money, but we still can’t solve this and it’s completely solvable.

I’ve had significant leaders and celebrities come to this building and see it and say, ’do you have to raise $35 million every year?’ Yeah, we do.

Many of our youth are out of work and trying to use their new degrees while covering student loan debt. It’s been a very hard job market for them. How would you encourage today’s millenials to make a career in social leadership given these conditions?

There are many points of entry and it’s not often a gargantuan step. It might be a very small step at first. You have to first make a very conscious decision that you’re going to do something, and then you’ve got to begin and do it. Like any activity that’s new in our life, you have to do it many times before you say, ‘okay, that’s a norm in my life.’ 

You’re correct that this generation has enormous opportunity and you’re absolutely correct that they have enormous debt. Student debt now exceeds home mortgage loans and car loans. Those have fallen off precipitously yet student debt is on a rampant rise. I get that you have to make choices.

I would say to them it matters. It matters to the person who eats today. It matters to the food that gets delivered. It matters that a child was able to have breakfast and go to school. It just matters. I think for this audience who might feel so overwhelmed, I would say to them you can give up the latte and make that equal contribution. You can maybe give up whatever the bar bill is on Friday and Saturday night with your friends and do something else. You have to find what that is for yourself. We’ve all gotten here because of others.

This generation too will make a huge difference but what have they been given? They have been given more opportunity than ever before. Whether they have brains – that’s a different story, right? They’ve clearly been given opportunity.

It appears that it is the young, struggling kids who are coming up with these great new ideas.

Yes, and it’s moving so quickly with the impact of the globalization of food, as well as technology, manufacturing. I’ve been reading a lot about the future of food and what foods are going to be available in five to ten years. I wonder what impact does that have? I don’t have an answer but I can tell you having been reading, and this may sound completely odd to you, but I’m either convinced that it’s going to be the 3-D printer in my home that I push a button and out comes my food or it’s going to be back to the farm and in my backyard I’m going to grow my own food; I’m going to have my bees; I’m going to have my chickens and pigs and I’m going to be fine. I haven’t figured out which way I’m going. I lean currently towards the backyard.

Sometimes I wonder if we won’t all be moving to Northern Vermont.

Yes, or it could be vertical farming. It could be on the third floor of your building. There are all kinds of ways to grow food that are coming with innovation. This generation has the opportunity to leave a gift and a legacy for future generations, and food is an integral part of that. 

 Heidi Legg speaks to Catherine D'Amato, President of The Greater Boston Food Bank inside the 21st century facility

Heidi Legg speaks to Catherine D'Amato, President of The Greater Boston Food Bank inside the 21st century facility