Top of Mind: Catherine D’Amato

Greater Boston Food Bank CEO, full-plate advocate, stealth power-broker, Fenway chanteuse, age 53, Brighton.

catherine damato

Photograph by Tim Llewellyn

The Greater Boston Food Bank’s gleaming just-opened headquarters alongside the Southeast Expressway looks a bit like an Ikea, wrong as that feels to say. More to the point, the 117,000-square-foot facility was designed with the same fetish for efficiency (because when resources are finite and your mission is getting sustenance, some of it perishable, to hungry people, efficiency is paramount). The food bank relocated over Patriot’s Day weekend, having run out of room in its makeshift space across the street. The new building’s not paid for yet—but as D’Amato makes clear, given the surge in need for its services, this was not a move that could wait.

Here are some of the best quotes pulled from her interview with Boston editor James Burnett.

We outgrew our old building two years ago. My grandfather, who was a farmer from Italy, used to say, “Caterina, we used every bit of a pig but the squeal”—I felt we had done that over there. We’d used every bit of that space that we possibly could.

We’re up now, we’re running, we’re moving, we’re learning, things are different. It’s good.

Our capital campaign is at about $26 million and we’ve got to get to $35 million. That’s tough. As the economy tanked, I thought, God, we have $9 million more to go. …[B]ut as I always say, “It’s only money.”

My staff will joke, “It’s your signature on the lending documents, right?”

Some people are asking how we could build something like this at this time. With all due respect to the governor—whom I do enjoy—he said to me recently at an event, “Catherine, that’s a big building!” I said, “Governor, it’s a big problem!”

It’s always surprising to others, the number of hungry people in this country. I’ve had legislators come up to me and say, “Come on, one in eight? What, are you nuts?” I’m not nuts. It’s quantifiable research.

I probably wouldn’t have been a good corporate soldier.

It’s not that we’re trying to be bigger and better. We’re trying to meet what the need is. If the need is 500,000 people, and we’re serving 350,000, then we haven’t met it. And then a recession comes, and that difference just got wider. And that’s when you sit there and go, “I’ve got to work harder and faster and smarter and think in ways that I hadn’t before.”Music is a great creative outlet for me, and balances some of the other pieces of my life. I can write a lot of different genres, but I lean toward folk and jazz. I call it “flazz.”

About six years ago, a staffer who knew that I sang pitched the idea of my singing the national anthem at Fenway Park. I said, “Get out of here. They’re not going to let me sing.” But they did, and that’s how I got started. It’s pretty awesome, especially during night games. It’s my only Bruce Springsteen moment.

I enjoy a great meal. I don’t have that much time for it, but I enjoy cooking. It surprises people that in three hours you can make an eggplant lasagna, a chicken chili, bake apples, and do a pork loin.

If I could drive a fast car all the time, I would. I like to go.

One of my favorite sayings is from Shakespeare, which is “The readiness is all.” Sometimes nothing moves until it’s ready to move. And that’s frustrating.

The completion of this, for all of us, is such a relief. You work and work and work to get to that moment, and then you’re like, “That’s it? We’re done?” We spent five years to get here. Now it’s about using it, making it real.

Yeah, we all have our days, and you just have to try to take care of yourself. I said to somebody not too long ago, “You used to be able to work 15, 16 hours a day and you could see the result. Today you can work that and not be sure if there’s ever going to be a result.” So you need to pace yourself. It’s a hard time, and it will be for a number of years, I think.

I don’t know one nonprofit executive who wouldn’t love to never raise money again in their life.