Looking out at a gritty neighborhood, and the people she serves
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Catherine D’Amato, chief executive of the Greater Boston Food Bank, is intimately familiar with the space in which she works. In addition to raising $35 million to build the 117,000-square-foot structure between I-93 and Newmarket Square, she helped design it.
Food has always been a big part of D’Amato’s life. She grew up in Northern California, where her parents owned an Italian restaurant, and her grandparents were farmers in Colorado. After heading up food banks in Western Massachusetts and San Francisco, she took the helm of the Boston operation in 1995, where she oversees 110 employees and a nearly $40 million annual budget from her office on the second floor.
Below her, a warehouse stacked high with boxes of green bananas and dusty potatoes distributes more than 60 million pounds of food a year to food pantries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and day-care centers. Being connected to that process is an important reminder of the food bank’s mission, D’Amato says: “This building feeds people.”
D’Amato’s office is expansive, though she is prepared to downsize to accommodate future growth. And it’s remarkably neat, filled with natural light and plants — and not a stray scrap of paper in sight.
Among the more notable features:
The view. The Financial District this is not. When D’Amato looks out her south-facing windows, she sees the methadone clinic across the street, a tofu manufacturer (in the former Food Bank building), Winston Flowers’ warehouse, a construction company, and an MBTA maintenance facility. Police cars cruise by on their way to the South Bay House of Correction next door. The homeless shelter that opened in the wake of the Long Island closure is a few blocks away.
It’s exactly where the food bank should be, D’Amato says.
“There’s a daily reminder in our neighborhood of our commitment to serve those in need. We all have to drive through, walk through, bike through, individuals — especially right now — that are in major crisis around drug addiction.”
Historic photos of the Food Bank site. Leaning against a wall on a shelf are two aerial photos of the Food Bank site. On the left is a stylized shot from the 1970s of the South Bay incinerator, where Boston’s garbage was once burned. Three smokestacks rise above a flat, industrial neighborhood, the highway curving behind it. On the right is the building, under construction, that D’Amato used her considerable fund-raising skills to open, in 2009, with the city skyline in the background.
“If I was truly in the commercial food distribution business, I would have never built a warehouse in Boston,” she says. “Dumb idea. Really expensive. But we’re a mission-driven organization, fighting hunger. Absolute right idea to be both visible and present to our community, and accessible.”
The mirror on the office door. D’Amato is often in the public eye, giving speeches, appearing on TV, and greeting high-profile visitors, including the governor and executives making donations, so she needs to be sure “everything’s tied down” before she heads out the door.
“It’s like that last look,” she says. “Did the lipstick go on right, or is the collar correct?”
She also relies on her public affairs manager, Catherine Drennan, to assess her appearance. “She’s good at saying to me: wrong color, earring’s missing, what happened to you this morning?”
Maple ivy plants with a family history. When D’Amato celebrated her first Mother’s Day 32 years ago, after her son was born, her mother gave her a maple ivy plant. The two leafy plants in her office are clippings from the original, which she still has at home. She has given away dozens of clippings from that Mother’s Day gift, in addition to other plant clippings she’s given to friends over the years.
“People think that’s very magical,” she says. “I think it speaks to who I am as a leader. I’m a homebody, I like to cook, I like to grow and garden.”
A seat belt that’s in a frame. On a high shelf crowded with accolades and photos — an award from the Anti-Defamation League, a picture with Janet Yellen when D’Amato was on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston — sits a buckled seat belt in a frame. Inside, an inscription reads: “Put your seat belt on. You’re laps ahead of the rest!”
A friend gave her the seat belt, which she picked up at a junk yard, to remind her to stay safe, D’Amato says.
“I’ve jumped off many a cliff without a parachute,” she says. “Splat. And I’ve looked up and there’s my team, going, ‘Hey, how you doing down there?’ So the seat belt is a reminder that you’ve got to bring people along, whether it’s your board, your donors. They don’t see everything you see.”