Interview With Natasha Pernicka, The Alliance for a Hunger Free New York and The Food Pantries for the Capital District

by Marissa Sheldon, MPH
Natasha Pernicka

Natasha Pernicka is a co-founder and the executive director of The Alliance for a Hunger Free New York as well as the executive director of The Food Pantries for the Capital District and a member of the New York State Council on Hunger and Food Policy. She has more than 20 years of experience in the nonprofit sector focusing on hunger relief, homelessness/housing, mental health, older adults, and youth development. Through The Food Pantries for the Capital District, Natasha also leads the New York State Food as Medicine Project

She received a bachelor’s degree in political science, literature, and history from Colorado State University and a master’s degree in public administration from the University at Albany, SUNY.   

Food Policy Center: Thank you for participating in this interview! Based on your current roles, it is clear that you have a passion for hunger relief and nutrition. Could you please tell me about when and how you became interested in this topic? 

Natasha Pernicka: I’ve been doing nonprofit work for more than twenty years, and I got involved in the nonprofit sector because I really wanted to help people. Twelve years ago, I was looking for a new opportunity after I had just had my first child, and when The Food Pantries for the Capital District executive director position came up, I felt deeply that this was what I wanted to do. Not just because of food, because everybody can relate to food – it’s your family, it’s your culture, it’s your health. You have to eat, so everybody relates to food. But I’d done more direct-service work in the past, which can be taxing on me because I’m actually an introvert (which many people find shocking!) and I take everything in, so I loved the idea of The Food Pantries being a coalition and having the role of helping the helpers.

I’m also a big picture person and a systems thinker, so one of the things I love about The Food Pantries coalition, and also the Alliance for a Hunger Free NY, is that we can help fill in the gaps, we can help bring people together, we can work toward system change. And the food pantry providers can focus on fulfilling their role, which is making sure people have food today, while we can work on ending hunger in New York State.

FPC: What are the biggest challenges for food pantries right now?

NP: Food pantries in general are really under-resourced. Here, in New York’s capital region, almost half the pantries in our coalition are completely volunteer-run, and even the pantries that do have paid staff largely rely on volunteers. The reason it’s so important for food pantries to have more resources is that it will increase operations, which increases access.  Because food pantries are largely based on what volunteers and donations can do, we’re not that great at having accessible hours of operation. There are pantries that might be open only from 10 to 2 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And we are at a point in our society where food pantries are more than just a one-off emergency resource for a family or individual, they’re really a secondary food system for a significant number of community members in our population. If the federal and state government won’t step in with living wages and stronger SNAP benefits – because living wages and stronger SNAP benefits are both better ways to end hunger – then we’re left with charity to solve hunger. And we need to make sure that food pantries are strong, so they can have staffing, longer hours of operation, especially for people who are working and have a hard time getting to pantries with sporadic hours of operation. It’s about access and funding. 

Another thing that came to light during COVID in 2020 was the home delivery aspect. There’s a significant percentage of our population that lack transportation, have chronic physical conditions, or are elderly, making it very difficult for them to get to a brick-and-mortar food pantry. During COVID, we got County support in New York’s capital region to home-deliver pantry groceries to people who didn’t have resources and were in quarantine, but that funding has ended. Before COVID, home delivery services were only provided as a one-off exception in special circumstances, but we all knew there was a big problem with people not being able to access food. So now, we’re coordinating home delivery here in the capital region, but it’s lacking. We struggle with capacity, and that is something that takes dollars. If you want to operate consistent, equitably-accessed programs, you need consistent funding. You can’t rely on volunteers to do consistent, equitably-accessed programming. 

FPC: After a decade as the executive director of Food Pantries for the Capital District, you founded The Alliance for a Hunger Free New York in 2020. What made you decide to form The Alliance? 

NP: New York has a state association of food banks, and they’re an incredible partner, but we also need a statewide voice for food pantries so that the legislative branch, the governor, and the state administration understand that food pantries also need to receive resources directly. 

I had personally started getting invited to state meetings, but because The Food Pantries is only a capital district organization, the state legislators said they couldn’t make policy or funding decisions based on just the capital region’s needs. So, I knew we needed to form relationships with food pantries across the state in order to convince the state government to provide more support for direct food providers. At that point, we started talking to some other pantries, from New York City, Binghamton, Rockland County, Central New York, the north country, and we started convening meetings to share information. We started by asking, “What are the challenges you faced during COVID?” It was a lack of volunteers, a totally messed up supply chain, and one of the things we recognized was that, even though we were in different parts of the state, even New York City compared to upstate, the challenges we faced were very similar, maybe just on a different scale. I consider myself one of the founders of that original steering committee group that started meeting in 2020. At that point we were calling ourselves the New York State Community Food Assistance Network, and we merged our concept with the Hunger Action Network of New York that had been dormant for a couple years. Now we’re operating as a separate 501c3 and have renamed ourselves The Alliance for a Hunger Free New York.

FPC: What have been some of the major accomplishments of The Alliance thus far? What are you working on currently? 

NP: One of the first major wins we had working together was in 2021 when the COVID vaccinations were starting to come out for essential workers. We had a struggle at first, because in 2020, the governor told us that food pantry workers should be considered grocery workers, which meant they were essential and should continue working. However, when the vaccinations came out, we sent out a communication to food pantries across the state reminding them that they were considered essential workers. The state saw the email and came down hard on us and said pantry workers were not to be considered grocery workers. So, we had food pantry workers and volunteers who had been putting themselves out there throughout 2020, and they were then being told they couldn’t have access to vaccines. We pushed hard on the governor and the administration and, in partnership with some folks who work at the state, we were able to get a classification as essential workers for food pantry workers and volunteers. That was the first time we were really able to see what we could do when we worked together as food pantries across the state.

Now, our big push is increasing the direct support of two state funding sources: the Department of Health manages funding for the Hunger Prevention Nutrition Assistance Program (HPNAP), which helps food banks and food pantries purchase nutritious food (including canned food, pantry staples, or produce), and Nourish New York, which helps food banks and food pantries purchase directly from New York State producers (a lot of dairy and fresh produce, which are really needed in the food pantry system). We really need the state to step up and fund both those programs at a higher dollar amount. Looking at the thousands of pantries across the state that are relying on that funding to help them make better purchasing choices, we are asking the state to fund them at $75 million each.

We also want the state to recognize that food pantries need to have access to direct HPNAP and Nourish NY contracts. It absolutely makes a critical difference for the pantries who are able to manage those contracts and want to take them on, because it gives them a greater ability to make sure that the foods they are purchasing are culturally appropriate, nutritious, and meeting the preferences of their consumers. Unfortunately, one of the things that happened during COVID was that we kind of went back to a “you get what you get” model of food. I can speak to this, because when I was in college, my grandparents used to get food from a food pantry whose model was “be happy that you’re getting this food.” The food they got was USDA food – government cheese, canned chicken, canned green beans. My grandparents were very old, and my grandma was used to cooking a certain way. She didn’t know what to do with some of the food, and she wasn’t used to eating it. But over the past 25 years, or even in the past 12 years,  the food pantry system has made great strides, providing more fresh produce, fresh dairy, and meat. And that’s what HPNAP does – it provides funding for healthier foods in the pantry system, so we’re not relying only on USDA food, and pantries can make choices about the kinds of products the people in their neighborhood are used to eating, which has a lot to do with dignity. We need to push hard for the state to make better choices for a dignified, charitable food system, starting at the pantry level and giving them the autonomy to choose the foods they purchase. 

Food banks do the best they can with the resources they have, but they don’t always have the food that pantries need, so a lot of pantries end up turning to grocery stores or their own wholesalers to purchase foods that aren’t available at the food banks. I think a lot of people don’t realize that. It’swhy getting the dollars directly into the food pantries’ hands is really important: so they can make sure they’re well-stocked and meet the needs of their own communities. 

FPC: What do you see as the biggest challenges in addressing hunger in New York State? 

NP: We have a really high cost of living in New York state. In the recent census pulse poll, one of the questions was “Do you have enough food to last through the week?” When they compared July 2021 with July 2023, they found that the number of people in New York state who responded “No, I don’t have enough food to last the week” had increased more than 80 percent, as compared to 30 or 35 percent nationally. When we talk about how to handle this, I go back to living wages, which I know is a really big challenge. I know there’s a lot of pressure on the governor from the corporate sector not to increase the minimum wage, so if we want to be a little more realistic about how to end hunger, the second best way to end hunger is through very strong SNAP benefits.

There is a current bill proposed to increase SNAP benefits and access to SNAP, which I think is a very good move. Some states now have a $100 per month SNAP benefit minimum, which is another good move. I recently heard a story about a retired gentleman who lives on a very limited income, and his SNAP benefit is $28 a month, so, of course, he has had to turn to a food pantry for the first time in his life, because, with inflation, those $28 are not going far at all. The challenges here are to get the state to increase SNAP coverage to pick up where the federal government has left off, and then to fully fund the charitable food system to make sure people have access to healthy food.

New York State should really pay attention here, because Medicaid is a real concern for the state in terms of cost, and we know that having consistent access to healthy food greatly increases people’s health, especially chronic conditions like diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and heart disease. If the state started making policy and funding decisions based on prevention, we would save money in the long run; it’s just not a short-term solution. And, unfortunately, our politics are based on crisis responses, not long-term planning. So I would urge the governor and the legislative branches to think about the fact that we have a high cost of living, and that, in the long run, we will save money by making sure everyone has enough healthy food consistently, not just in a crisis like COVID. 

This past year, there was a huge debacle with HPNAP funding. Across the state, pantries lost a significant number of contracts because of a lack of clarity about how to allocate the funding. It impacted pantries across the state in terms of losing their autonomy over funding choices as well as the amount they received, especially for operations.

FPC: How would you describe the intersection between food security and food as medicine? 

NP: Food as medicine is a hot topic right now, it’s trending, but for good reason. For a lot of people who don’t have resources and are not food-secure, food as medicine interventions are a great way to supplement resources, like any medication, to make them healthier. If you have limited resources and you have diabetes, and a doctor says you need to eat healthier without asking if you have the resources to get healthy food, you’ll be demoralized because there’s nothing else you can do. In fact, I was talking to my own primary care doctor about food as medicine, and he said he sees so many patients who do not have the resources to pay for healthier food, and he doesn’t know what to do to help them. So that’s where food as medicine steps in with this movement toward Medicaid, Medicare, and all health insurance programs covering prescriptions to help people purchase healthy foods or get prepared, healthy meals. It’s just like a prescription for medication; it will have the same benefit. 

We had a participant in our Food as Medicine program in New York’s capital region who is in her 50s, she’s a grandma, she takes care of her grandchildren, she’s on disability, she has diabetes, obesity, hypertension, she’s in a wheelchair, and she was feeling completely hopeless about her situation. She even got to the point where she was begging the state to take her grandchildren from her because she felt like she wasn’t able to adequately care for them. She was in our Food as Medicine program for six months, and she lost 30 pounds and decreased her hypertension significantly, and the amount of insulin she needed to take went down. And she’s in a wheelchair, so she’s not exercising, this was based solely on the food she was consuming. Now when she talks about her experience, she says, “I was completely hopeless, but Food as Medicine gave me hope.” 

That is a moral imperative for our healthcare system, to give people the resources to improve their health. That is what the healthcare system is for. And because healthy food is such a critical component of health, it’s really a no-brainer. It’s just trying to get the research and data to push it forward on a policy level and making sure we have best practices in place. 

Both the Food Pantries for the Capital District and the Alliance for a Hunger Free New York are facilitating the New York State Food as Medicine Coalition. We just launched the coalition this year. We brought together more than 100 stakeholders across the state – hospitals, doctors, nurses, RDNs, nonprofits that operate food as medicine programs, health insurance companies, academic researchers – to put together 15 recommendations to the state on the upcoming 1115 waiver to implement social care, such as food as medicine, through Medicaid. And we’re working on finalizing a larger food as medicine plan that we’re hoping to release in the beginning of 2024. 

FPC: What role do food pantries play in food as medicine? Do you think it is feasible for more pantries to increase their supplies of whole foods while reducing or eliminating processed food donations?

NP: Food pantries are a preventative layer of food as medicine! They’re able to educate their visitors on healthy food selections and meal preparation, and to encourage healthy choices through their physical layout and offerings. Some food pantries and food banks are also playing a greater role in medically-tailored grocery programming by connecting to healthcare providers to get referrals and ensure that visitors receive medically appropriate foods.

The supply of whole foods versus processed foods goes back to food pantries’ having more direct autonomy over the dollars they spend and being able to purchase their own wholesale products and purchasing more directly from local farmers. It’s definitely possible to increase the availability of whole foods and limit processed foods, but it’s a matter of funding pantries directly so they have the autonomy to do that. 

FPC: The NYS Food as Medicine Project advocates for food as medicine initiatives to be included as covered benefits through Medicaid. What barriers, if any, does the state need to overcome in order to make this a reality? What other supports already exist?

NP: One of the barriers we’re facing right now is having bridge funding. A lot of the nonprofits that are running food as medicine programs they started during DSRIP (Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment) have been limping along with foundation support, but it’s been very challenging. The new 1115 waiver was supposed to be approved by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) in April, but it’s still not approved, and the longer it takes CMS to approve the waiver, the longer it will take for funding to get to food pantries to pay for food as medicine interventions. Bridge funding that could take us from now until whenever the waiver is approved and operationalized is critical. Organizations don’t even know if they’ll be operating the food as medicine programs, and we’d like them to still be running and ready to get started when the 1115 waiver kicks in. If the state wants to have a successful nonprofit sector providing food as medicine services, they need to provide bridge funding to help those nonprofits keep operating until federal funding comes through.

Another issue is that the food pantry administrative overhead – HIPAA compliance, technology, and program management time – is often above and beyond the resources of a typical food pantry. The reimbursement rates of the service need to reflect the true cost of the service. The state consistently funds nonprofit contracted services at rates that are lower than their actual cost, so we’re pushing hard to make sure that the rates they pay food as medicine providers accurately reflect the total cost – not just the cost of food, but the total cost of the program.

There isn’t a lot of support in place right now, which is why the NYS Food as Medicine Coalition is meeting with legislators, sending information to the governor, and working closely with the Social Determinants of Health office under the Department of Health. We’re making sure that everyone hears the messaging and knows why these initiatives are so important. 

FPC: Aside from Medicaid coverage, what is one other policy that you would like to see enacted in New York State related to hunger and food as medicine? Do you think it would be possible to enact such a policy in the near future?

NP: I would like to see New York take a leadership role in becoming a state that recognizes food as a basic human right. Maine was the first state in the US to recognize it, and I believe New York should, too. The United States is one of the few nations in the UN that doesn’t recognize food as a human right, and I feel that we have a moral imperative, in a country with the wealth and food resources we have, to make sure that no one goes without. I do believe it is possible – if Maine can do it, New York can do it! I look forward to working with the state government to move that forward.

FPC: Just this July, you became a member of the New York State Council on Hunger and Food Policy. How does the Council influence food policy in the state? What legislative efforts are you and your fellow council members focusing on right now?

NP: I’ve been participating in the council for years as an affiliate member, and this past year I was honored to become a full member. Our efforts focus on the agriculture system, making sure people have access to SNAP benefits, and resourcing charitable food systems. The council provides an annual report to the state administration and legislative branch, and the next report will be released in the beginning of 2024. It does not outline specific policy requests but makes recommendations to help influence policy makers. We’re hoping we can use this document to show them what we, as a collective, have determined should be priorities for the state. 

We all agree that we need to support New York state producers. New York has a high percentage of specialty crops, meaning fruits and vegetables, that are not largely supported by the federal Farm Bill. Most of the funding from the Farm Bill goes to the manufactured food industry and large agri-business, and New York state has a lot of small- and medium-sized farms that do not benefit. When you look at USDA’s MyPlate model and the recommendation that half of our food should be fruits and vegetables, it would make sense for the Farm Bill to support those crops.

I believe New York state does a pretty good job with win-win opportunities like the Nourish New York program, where food banks and food pantries can buy directly from New York state producers, which is great because it helps both the farmers and the food pantries. I just think we need more of that. I hope the state will continue to invest in agriculture and our charitable food system, while also investing in ramping up SNAP access and resources, and keep pushing on the living wage as much as we can.

FPC: Is there anything else you would like to add?

NP: I think one of the most important things for all of us in the anti-hunger world is to work collaboratively. We run the risk of competing against each other for state funding and policies that don’t always align. That’s why the Alliance has a collaborative anti-hunger advocacy meeting, where we invite other anti-hunger advocacy groups to share what their particular issues are, so we can elevate one another’s efforts. I view it as the Alliance’s job to amplify the voice of food pantries and those who are food-insecure, as well as encouraging cooperation among all the different anti-hunger efforts so we can move New York collaboratively to become  a hunger-free state. 


Grew up in: California and Colorado

City or town you call home: Village of Ballston Spa

Job title: Executive Director

Background and education: Master’s in Public Administration

One word you would use to describe our food system: Potential

Food policy hero: Dr. Mark Hyman 

Your breakfast this morning: Leftover French fries, fried with spinach, eggs, and cheese (I am honest!)

Favorite food: Guacamole

Favorite last meal on Earth: Grandma’s traditional Czech holiday meal – pork chops with sauerkraut and apples and dumplings with gravy

Favorite food hangout: Dove and Deer (in Albany)

Food policy social media must follow: Civil Eats

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