Capital Region

Outlook 2021: Pernicka finds niche as executive director of Albany nonprofit that works to defeat food insecurity

Natasha Pernicka in the Bethesda House food pantry on State Street in Schenectady
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Natasha Pernicka in the Bethesda House food pantry on State Street in Schenectady

Published Feb. 25, 2021 in Outlook

When Natasha Pernicka graduated from Colorado State University with a liberal arts degree, she knew she wanted to work in the human services sector but she wasn’t sure what that job would be.

Pernicka was working several part-time jobs, including dog-sitting, working at a plant nursery and even telemarketing for a day. When an opportunity came to teach English in Japan, she took it.

“What I realized is that I’m an introvert,” she said. “It was hard for me to be actively teaching classes all day long.”

She returned to Colorado, still with the desire to have a job where she was helping people. She looked into becoming a counselor, but soon realized she would have to be talking to people throughout the day.

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While Pernicka was still figuring out what to do, the mother of a high school friend who worked for the United Way told Pernicka about a program coordinator job at a suicide prevention organization.

“It was really small, just the executive director and myself, so I got a lot of experience in fundraising,” Pernicka said. She also formed a depression education support group, worked with volunteers and expanded school-based prevention programs, among other efforts.

“I also got to do a lot of community work,” she said. “At a very young age, I got to attend county meetings. The experience I had access to because it was such a small organization was incredible — to learn, grow and have responsibility at such a young age.”

Pernicka then took a job for a larger mental health association in California, where she was in charge of a single program. It was there that she learned a valuable lesson about herself: She is a big-picture kind of person. “While the work was meaningful, I needed to be in a manager or director position so that I could see the big picture,” she said.

At the young age of 26, she began interviewing for a series of manager and executive director positions. What she found was that while she could make it to the round of final job-seekers for those positions, she always lost out to candidates who had an advanced degree and more time in the field, more experience and a broader background. That’s when she decided to earn her master’s of public administration. The State University of New York at Albany’s Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy has one of the top programs in the country, so Pernicka headed east.

While she was a student, Pernicka worked as assistant executive director for the Homeless & Travelers Aid Society in Albany. She loved the experience because she got to apply what she was learning in her master’s program.

Pernicka ended up in the job of executive director of the Food Pantries for the Capital District in 2011. During her tenure there, the organization has grown from a grassroots effort of six employees and a $600,000 budget to a force to be reckoned with in the business of alleviating food insecurity, with an annual budget of $2 million and more than 20 employees. The organization has also expanded beyond Albany and Rensselaer counties to include Saratoga and Schenectady counties.

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“Our organization is unrecognizable from when I started,” Pernicka said. Today, the Food Pantries consists of a coalition of 68 food pantries — half of which volunteers operate — that serve 65,000 people.

In addition to having the “big picture” of the Food Pantries, Pernicka has worked to help provide a broad view of food insecurity in the Capital Region and beyond.

In 2017, organizations came together for the Capital Region Food summit. This year, the biannual event has been expanded to become the New York State Food Summit, co-sponsored by the Food Pantries and the New York State Community Food Assistance Network, an outgrowth of that first food summit.

“We’re building a network of other food pantries and coalitions so that we can advocate for food pantries at a state level,” Pernicka said. “We’re working with networks across the state so that food pantries have the voice and the resources they need.”

Locally, the Food Pantries is in the process of rolling out a client database and referral system, which came largely from its “Filling the Gap Food Pantry System and Community Needs” initiative that began in 2014. This database would help to provide a more accurate picture of who is in need, thus allowing food pantries to be more effective in helping those people. Once all the food pantries are on the new software system, Food Pantries for the Capital District will be able to tell how many people are using pantries on a regular basis as a supplemental food system, not an emergency one.

“That way we are the voice of the hungry,” Pernicka said.

The database will also help food pantries improve their referral systems, steering people to other services from which they might benefit, as service organizations that fulfill various needs are connected through a software platform. “It’s a more active way than just giving someone a flyer; it’s providing contact information so that the organization can reach out to that individual.”

Filling the Gap seeks to reconcile the numbers of those who are food insecure. While 65,000 people are visiting food pantries, 89,000 are considered food insecure. This initiative seeks to reduce the stigma about food pantries and increase access to them for the people who might go hungry otherwise.

Under Pernicka’s leadership, Food Pantries for the Capital District launched the Food as Medicine Project, a program through which, with referrals from their medical providers, those on Medicaid and other low-income individuals can obtain healthy groceries weekly.

Rocking the boat

“I think for so long, I wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t say anything that people would get mad at or rock the boat,” Pernicka said. Now, with more than 20 years’ experience working in various aspects of the human services sector, including suicide prevention, grief support, mental health support, senior social rehabilitation, homelessness, youth development and now food security, Pernicka is speaking out.

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“The problems that charities are trying to fix is because our greater system is broken,” she said. “We need to solve these problems through policy. We need those 40 percent of people [who are food insecure] to have jobs that have living wages. Now, I’m not afraid to say difficult things, because it’s the right thing to do. I’m grateful that I have an opportunity to say them.”

Pernicka’s dedication shows. “She’s certainly passionate about the issue of hunger,” said Mark Quandt, executive director of the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York. “She is always looking for ways to advance the cause of those who are suffering from hunger in our community.”

Self-care’s role in caring for others

While Pernicka has spent more than two decades caring for others, she now balances that with caring for herself. She views this as a transformational place to be.

“When I was younger, helping other people made me feel good about myself, maybe because I needed help,” Pernicka reflected. “At this point in my life, I’m starting to grow into my life and help myself, too. By helping myself and taking care of myself, I’m able to do a better job of helping others. I wanted to be there for people when there was nobody else there for them. Now, I’m learning how to be there for myself and learning how to care for myself. I’m finally treating myself the way I’m expecting myself to be treating everyone else.”

At a glance

Who: Natasha Pernicka, executive director of Food Pantries for the Capital District, is 43 and the mother of three children, ages 10, 8, and 5.

What: The tagline and guiding thought for Pernicka’s organization is “Working together, we can do more than any one of us working alone.”

Some stats: Annually, with the help of its staff and more than 400 volunteers, Food Pantries for the Capital District delivers 3.1 million pounds of product, distributes 84,000 pounds of fresh produce, provides more than 101,000 diapers and 2,000 cans of formula, and supplies enough groceries for 3.9 million meals.

Food Bank vs. Food Pantries: People often do not understand the difference between Food Pantries for the Capital District and the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York. The organizations started within a year of each other, but they fulfill different roles in addressing food insecurity. The Regional Food Bank warehouses food that is distributed to the community, while Food Pantries for the Capital District coordinates services at the pantry level to get food directly to those who need it. “The food bank is the wholesaler and food pantries are retailers,” Pernicka said.

What Pernicka wants you to know: “Hunger is a solvable problem. This needs to stop. There’s no reason we should have hunger in our country or in our community. It’s a solvable problem.”

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Categories: Business, News, Outlook 2021

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