Top of Mind: D'Amato, Extended Version

Boston editor James Burnett: Let’s start with your agency’s new headquarters—how did the big move go?

Catherine D’Amato: We have 600 agencies, we feed 83,000 people a week. Over a half a million people rely on us. These are big numbers. So as part of the move we extended hours for several weeks before, so people were at least able to pull food ahead of time, because we were closed a few days. … It actually worked pretty well. We knew we had three days [Patriot’s Day weekend], that was a gift. So we closed Friday, we were open here Tuesday but not for distribution. Our first distribution was yesterday. So we’re up, we’re running, we’re moving, we’re learning, things are different. It’s good.

JB: As you closed down that Friday, was there anything you felt you’d miss about the old building?

CD: I was asked, “You’re the leader, what would you like to say?” And I said, “Let’s kiss this baby goodbye. Time to go.” You know, it couldn’t come soon enough. We outgrew it two years ago. …My grandfather was an immigrant from Italy and a farmer, and he used to say, “Caterina, we used every bit of a pig but the squeal”—I felt we’d done that over there. We’d used every bit of that space that we possibly could and more. But we also noted it had served the organization incredibly well, since it was bought in 1992. When I came in ’95, we were distributing 7 million pounds of food; today it’s 30 million. That building was never designed for 30 million. So it really worked hard.

JB: How is the bigger space going to change things for you and your organization?

CD: At twice the square footage and four times the cubic space, it will enable us to double our capacity in terms of acquisition, storage, and distribution. Also, it was designed as a food bank. Having the building designed to flow in a particular way is an enormous benefit because you’re using the design to move materials more efficiently—in some cases decreasing physical handling by 80 percent, sometimes 90 percent.

From a food safety perspective, we have refrigerated docks that come right into the refrigerators—in our industry it’s called the “chill chain,” and you don’t break the chill chain. So frozen turkeys come off a refrigerated truck into a refrigerated dock into the refrigerator. We didn’t have that before. In the other building we used wraps and blankets and thermals and temporary trailers, and you ship it over to preferred freezer and then you ship it back. …This facility also reflects many other great ideas from other food banks. The warehouse floor layout we took from the Oklahoma City Food Bank. The member service area we took from the Nashville Food Bank. The marketplace we took from the Cleveland Food Bank. The ambient air and the coolers we took from the Vermont Food Bank. So we visited many, and saw some really great ideas, and thought, That’s really cool, or, That works really well, gee, I hadn’t thought about that.

[The whole process] began years ago. Because you’re just not building a food bank. It’s a warehouse, it’s refrigeration, it’s offices, it’s cumulative space. It’s not a commercial business, it’s a charitable organization to feed hungry people, but you still need good systems. I grew up in the food business—my grandparents were farmers, my father was a milkman and bread man, then he opened a restaurant when I was eight. So the science of it, the engineering of it, is very familiar. There’s a tremendous amount of logistics in our business. It’s very tactile. You pick up food, you move food, you feed hungry people. So I think the vision of the facility, of what it could be for our community, has been sitting with me for a long time.

As for the green aspect, we will be seeking Silver LEED certification. I mean, I don’t know anything about a solar wall, but we built a solar wall. We cared about taking a brown field and converting it to a green building and having what was where Boston burned its garbage be a food bank. That’s a pretty extraordinary piece.

The building is our program. It isn’t the place where we go and sit in an office. It’s a place where people to get the food they need.