Antihunger advocate and literary omnivore

Greater Boston Food Bank chief Catherine D’Amato is passionate about social justice. Greater Boston Food Bank chief Catherine D’Amato is passionate about social justice.
By Amanda Katz
Globe Correspondent / December 5, 2010

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Last year, led by president and chief executive Catherine D’Amato, the Greater Boston Food Bank opened a huge, energy-efficient new facility on the Roxbury-South End line. Today, it serves 83,000 people a week. D’Amato joined the organization in 1995, after stints at food banks in Western Massachusetts and San Francisco. An enthusiastic home cook, and a musician and composer, she lives in Brighton and performs the national anthem at Fenway Park once a year.

What kinds of books do you read?

It depends whether I’m looking to get lost in a book, or to learn something. I read Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, bang, bang, bang. I couldn’t get my head out of it. I’ll read everything John Grisham’s got — I just finished “Ford County,” which was completely entertaining. My favorite book of all time is “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White. I just love the lessons in it. I can read it over and over.

I’ll also read something by Thomas Friedman — “The World Is Flat” or “Hot, Flat, and Crowded” — or “Freakonomics,” or books like “Governance as Leadership.”

I have songbooks, to learn a particular piece or more about writing music. I recently read “This Is Your Brain on Music,” by Daniel Levitin — it was fun to get into the science of it. And I grew up in the restaurant business, so I can open the refrigerator and make a meal. But there are cookbooks that are standards in my home — Julia Child’s books and the Moosewood books.

Do you read nonfiction books about food?

Sure. They help me stay focused on public opinion and thought leaders, as well as specific research. The food bank gives away 34 million pounds of product a year, and it comes in various ways — packaged, fresh, frozen. When I read something like “Four Fish” by Paul Greenberg it becomes clearer why products are available in the marketplace.

What books have informed your thinking about hunger?

“Building Social Business” by Muhammad Yunus and “Closing the Food Gap” by Mark Winne, which looks at access. There are plenty of books in the field. Some I can align with. With others, I appreciate that people may be thoughtful citizens of the world, but on the ground, the problem can look very different than just “Let’s get the federal government to solve hunger.”

You studied theology in college. What authors were important to you?

I studied theology because of a French Jesuit named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He was what’s called a process theologian, which spoke to me. And I was passionate about social justice. I read everything I could about Dorothy Day and her work starting The Catholic Worker during the soup kitchen days of the Depression. I was very influenced by her and her writing.

What books would you recommend to people seeking to understand hunger in the US?

One in eight Americans goes to a pantry, soup kitchen, or shelter. These are staggering numbers. Hunger is an outcome of poverty, and thus you’re dealing with economics, jobs, education, housing, health care — big, huge problems. They’re completely solvable, but we have not taken the initiative as a society to solve them.

Thomas Friedman doesn’t specifically talk about hunger, but he addresses the supply chain, which might be the sourcing for an electronic product as much as for food. Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed” was fascinating, and it could not have been more poignant about the issues people face. But I don’t have a book that I would point to and say, “Every American should read this.’’ I haven’t seen a book that necessarily gives a solution.

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