Top of Mind: D'Amato, Extended Version

JB: Of the many aspects of your job, is there one thing that you find most gratifying?

CD: Three things make this organization go: money, food, and people. We have to have the money—we couldn’t have built this facility without the generosity of many people in this community, and it’s with their generosity that this building was built. Money permits us to purchase food when we need to, or pay salaries, or keep the lights on. And you have to have the food. But to me, the food, while challenging, isn’t the most difficult challenge. The money’s much harder to come by than the food. Especially in these times.

The people are incredibly genuine and generous. We have 14,000 volunteers, 500 food companies, 75 staff, and enormous in-kind donors as well. They come together, and it’s pretty phenomenal. We have some folks that are food donors, some people that are volunteers, some people that give you the check, but you need all three to make it happen. …We have a saying and we’ve used it so much we’ve trademarked it, which is “Everyone has a role in ending hunger.” For some people it’s the canned-food drive at their sixth-grader’s school. For others it’s “I don’t have time to do anything else, but I have 25 bucks to give you.” Or, “I really don’t have 25 dollars but I have four hours to give you.”

…So what gives me satisfaction? The generosity of the human spirit is pretty amazing. And for me it comes in everything from very little ways to very big ways, but they’re all very valuable.

JB: Where are you on the building’s capital campaign?

CD: We’re at about $26 million and we’ve got to go to $35 million, so we’ve got nine. Tough to do. We’re fortunate that we have financing, we have 30-year tax-exempt bonds on the building. Nobody likes to go into debt.
And yet at this time, brick-and-mortar-type giving has slowed dramatically, especially individual and corporate giving. Foundation giving is pretty strong. But everybody’s felt this. It’s a different kind of recession. In my 30 years this is the third recession working in domestic hunger relief. The difference in this one is, it’s everybody. It’s everybody. So the rich are less rich. Some probably feel like they’re poor. And the poor are still poor, and in some cases even more poor than they were. It’s just gotten more complicated and difficult. It’s an unknown time.

Even with the need for your services going up, just as supply and money and donations are being squeezed, you seem to have managed to stay really sanguine. Where does that ability come from?

CD: Well, I sing and write music, and that helps me a lot. I have a child, and that helps ground you, no matter what their age is. They bring you right back to the moment: “What’s for dinner?”

I grew up in San Francisco, and I often talk about myself as a child of the ’60s: the whole anti-poverty movement, seeing issues like school lunch and food distribution come forward; the Vietnam War ending in the early ’70s; social justice. I grew up in an Italian Catholic family where that kind of imprint comes [naturally].

…As this economy tanked, I thought, “God, we have $9 million more to go,” and people were like, “What are we going to do?” And I’m like, “We’re going to get up and do the best we can. I don’t control the universe, you don’t, we’re going to do the best we can. We’re going to be okay.” I always say, “It’s only money.” And jokingly my staff will say to me, “It’s your signature on the lending documents, right, Catherine?”

…But yeah, we all have our days, and you just have to try to take care of yourself. I said to somebody recently, “You used to be able to work 15, 16 hours a day and you could see the result. Today, you can’t work that and you’re not sure if there’s ever going to be a result.” So you need to pace yourself and be cognizant of that. It’s not the same time anymore, in terms of energy in and results out. It’s a hard time, and it will be for a number of years, I think.

On the other side for me, some people are saying, “How could you build this building at this time?” And I’m saying, “How could you not?” With all due respect to the governor, who I do enjoy, he said to me recently at an event, “Catherine, the building!” I said, “Yes, governor, what?” He said, “That’s a big building!” I said, “Governor, it’s a big problem!” And he kind of got it. Because again, it’s a big problem. One in eight Americans. One in 10 in our own state.