Catherine D’Amato at Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy Commencement

Published on May 21, 2024

Tufts University

Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy

Catherine D’Amato

Commencement Keynote Speaker

Sunday, May 19, 2024 @ 11:00 a.m.


Good morning graduates. Today, we celebrate you. We acknowledge your tremendous accomplishment to complete your degree from the distinguished Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. My sincere thanks to Dean Christina Economos, for the invitation to join you in your celebration today. And a warm welcome to the faculty, your families and friends. As we reflect on your accomplishments this morning, it may surprise you when I say that we cannot remove COVID from your experience as a student, a parent, or a child. It has touched us all. And it has changed our lives forever. In addition to the real time impact of the virus, the generational change is significant. The way we learn, work, live, eat, and even farm, has been transformed, along with a list too long to mention.

My team’s work has changed too. The way we create access to healthy foods, the awareness and inclusion of the person with the lived experience, the commitment to provide culturally relevant foods and to invest in stronger local food access systems with effective emerging models. The demand has changed too – it is a strong, and unfortunately lingering effect of COVID. We are in the midst of the most historic amount of hunger in our country and around the world.

While COVID was a pandemic, hunger is an epidemic. And sadly, the volatility, complexity and consequences we face today are here to stay. They are expected to impact generations to come. The challenge we face together is to move beyond the crisis to durable change. And what I mean by that is moving beyond the emergency to build sustainable impact. I believe you can influence that change.

You are standing at the intersection of generational change – where the health consequences of hunger finally align with racial inequity, economic insecurity, food insecurity, access to education, and climate change. The intersectionality of issues creating and sustaining poverty is before us, surrounded by the profound truth of inequity and injustice. The social determinants of health have finally grabbed the attention of health care and the health insurance industry. FINALLY, WE ARE TALKING ABOUT HEALTH EQUITY. This is good, yet only if it leads to change for the better.

05/19/2024 – Medford/Somerville, Mass. – The Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy Phase II ceremony at Cohen Auditorium during Tufts University’s 168th Commencement on Sunday, May 19, 2024. (Lisa Aileen Dragani for Tufts University)

If you ever doubted your ability to help…to make a difference…to make an impact, large or small, doubt no more. Now is your time to act. Now is your time to make a difference.

We each have a story, a story that informs us who we are, how we make our choices. Yours will take you from this point into the future, into a bit of the unknown. The current climate across the globe will demand you to use your skills to create durable change by applying your knowledge of science and your commitment to health to shape lasting policy. Your actions have the power to impact lives forever.

When I was much younger, I wanted to be a singer and yet here I am, a food banker, fighting for justice my entire career. No one goes to college to be a food banker; there is no degree. My experiences informed my choices.  My grandparents were immigrant farmers, my parents were working class and struggled to support our family of six. My father was a truck driver, and my mother was a tailor. When I was eight, my parents opened a restaurant in our hometown in northern California. That move from working class to middle class created durable change. That decision changed my life. The values in my family were strong. We had shelter, food, family, and friends. We were taught to help others. In our case this meant feeding anyone coming to the back door of the restaurant seeking food in exchange for work. No work required. Instead, everyone was seated at a table, treated with respect, and fed a nutritious meal. I reflect now and think that it is no wonder I decided to study Theology and commit my life’s work to helping others. Do not underestimate the power of influence from a mentor, teacher, a parent or an experience. It may guide you through your career; influencing your work to create lasting impact. That’s durable change.

I was never taught anything about nutrition. Yet another single experience changed my understanding and to this day influences my decisions. In the late eighties when I was running the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, I received a phone call from Dr. Nancy Cohen, a Professor of Nutrition at UMASS Amherst. She asked if she could bring her community nutrition students to see the warehouse and the work we were doing. I ignorantly asked, “Why, why come to the food bank, we don’t do nutrition?” She kindly responded, “Catherine, it is important for my students studying community nutrition to understand the work you are doing. They need to know how it impacts their community.” That experience taught me the importance of community nutrition,  nutrition education and access to information and resources. From that day forward I have been committed to providing the healthiest food possible to those we serve. This is the power of influence. The power to change the outcome; to create a positive healthy outcome. From this point on Registered Dieticians were always on staff. I created the first Food Bank Farm in America –in Hadley, MA. I hired the first medical doctor within the Feeding America network with an emphasis on public health which led me to create the Hunger to Health Collaboratory, a national public/private initiative focused on health equity. The power of influence. Never underestimate your influence on others or the ability to use your platform. We all have it.

I left Western Massachusetts in 1995 to run The Greater Boston Food Bank. I am not proud to say, “Boston could not even move a carrot. Not one carrot.  No produce at all.” In reflection that is unbelievable. Today we distribute forty million pounds of fresh produce. We rank our inventory to ensure we provide the healthiest food possible. No longer are we the snack bank. We are a food bank. FOOD, the HEALTHY FOOD BANK, with capital letters. The world kept changing and we needed to change as well. To make the best foods available. So, I made them FREE. All food at the Greater Boston Food Bank is free. When you remove the barriers, you increase the possibility for impact.

05/19/2024 – Medford/Somerville, Mass. – the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy Phase II ceremony at Cohen Auditorium during Tufts University’s 168th Commencement on Sunday, May 19, 2024. (Lisa Aileen Dragani for Tufts University)

Hunger is agnostic. Even in this period of extreme beliefs that can polarize us, hunger HAS NO POLITICAL affiliation. It can show up at anyone’s doorstep…It can happen to anyone. In any city. In any state. In any country. It is prevalent on half of our college campuses.

The Greater Boston Food Bank, with others, works to battle this epidemic. Studies indicate that 1 in 10 in the world are hungry; 1 in 6 in the United States are food insecure; and since the pandemic 1 in 3 in Massachusetts do not know where their next meal is coming from. This historic truth is unacceptable. The World Health Organization called hunger the greatest threat to public health. Food is a human right. I believe we have the power to end hunger by working together to empower others to have affordable access to healthy foods.

The values I learned, both as a small child and as an adult, have not changed. They have evolved. In my world, people often ask me what frustrates me the most. That is an easy question to answer. We are not trying to fix something that cannot be fixed. Hunger is a solvable problem. Yet it takes political will and public engagement to solve it. We certainly know how to grow, transport, prepare and sell food. Simply put, the answer does not require sophisticated science or chemistry. No drug or vaccine needed. There is a cure: FOOD. Access to healthy affordable food.

But today is NOT about frustration. It is about celebration and hope. As I look out at you, I am encouraged. I see enormous potential. I see smart, capable people ready to make an impact. The education you have achieved here at the Friedman School has prepared you to serve in leadership roles across the country and the globe. It has prepared you to work collaboratively with others, to address problems with your knowledge. You have the power to influence and create durable change. My focus has been on hunger relief. What will be yours?

Embrace what makes you special  as you leave here today. Apply your values, apply your interests; apply your education; and apply your experience as you begin your next journey. I am encouraged because I know this about you. You think differently. You work differently – you are faster and smarter. You care about the environment. You care about health equity. You care about science. You care about policy. There is so much you can do if you choose to act with intention to give voice to those that cannot speak.

I have seen the shame it takes to seek out help. I have also witnessed the relief that comes with the gift of understanding, acceptance, and support. This morning you give me hope. Hope that people will be empowered to move from hunger to health. Hope that food insecurity will become food security for all. Hope for safer, cleaner foods across our planet for generations to come.

I told you earlier that when I was younger, I wanted to be a singer. Even though I chose a different career path, it turns out, I can still sing! So, let me leave you with a prayer from the Navaho Nation. It is a  blessing to honor all of you, to honor your accomplishment and the many contributions you are going to make.


In the hours of my life,

There I wander.

In the hours of my happiness,

I wander.

Beauty before me.

Beauty behind me.

Beauty below me

All around me


Congratulations graduates on your amazing accomplishment. Now go change the world! Thank you.




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