New leader of food bank brings women into leadership positions – Times Union

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According to Molly Nicol, chief executive officer of the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, women can, in fact, have it all.
They just might not be able to have it all contemporaneously.
Nicol learned this in the tight-wire act of being a busy working mother and wife. On one end of her balancing rod, her professional ambitions and on the other, the obligations to her family. When her children were young, Nicol had to take a pause in advancing her career and focus on their needs, but as they became more independent, Nicol was able to integrate back into career mobility, eventually landing her as the head of Albany Medical Center’s charitable foundation before securing her current position at the Regional Food Bank.
Nicol’s predecessor, Mark Quandt, led the Regional Food Bank for 28 years. “Mark grew up with the food bank and he knew everything about it,” Nicol said. She served as a board member for the organization for six years, before becoming CEO in June, and had a firsthand look at how the Regional Food Bank operated and where it could flourish. “As a board member, you are responsible for the fiscal health of the organization,” Nicol said. But as CEO she takes on the strategic, big-picture responsibilities of the organization and its employees and volunteers. There are 125 employees and 12,000 volunteers. Nicol said, “They are the best human beings I’ve ever gotten to work with.”
Changing the organizational leadership structure was among her first orders of business, dividing the c-level positions between CEO, chief operations officer, chief financial officer and chief program officer. Of the four roles, all but the operations officer are female-held positions. Nicol said in her experience, female leadership is rooted in open, direct and complete communication. “I am happy to collaborate and delegate, but I allow the chiefs to be experts in their fields,” she said. Women in leadership also bring with them generations of social expectation and domestic duty that have traditionally been relegated to the realm of womanhood. “When you talk about the traditional roles women plan, we are the ones planning the meals, buying the groceries, etc. With women, it’s almost visceral. I take on (food security) as what if that were my child?” Nicol said.
Women often find themselves in a “sandwich generation,” where they are caring for both younger (children) and older (parents) family members, Nicol said. The sensitivity to the needs of the elderly is as present as those of children. The pandemic exposed the Regional Food Banks unique relationship to senior citizens: retired individuals constituted large portions of both volunteers and those served. Seniors and those disabled or vulnerable were not coming out to assist or receive services during the pandemic at the same rate they did before the pandemic because of health concerns, leading to a net loss of 4,000 volunteers.
“And yet, there were other people to step forward,” Nicol said. “If you see our volunteers and the people that work here, you see people that come from all walks of life,” she added, noting that changes in people’s daily work routines meant that volunteers who normally would not be able to assist with food bank operations during the day were available to lend a hand.
That help came just in time, as the need for food supplements reached a pinnacle during the pandemic. “Food insecurity went from 35 to 42 million people. Feed America says it won’t come down again for five years due to the economic impact of COVID,” Nicol said. While the Regional Food Bank has community partners and sponsors that give all year long, in pre-COVID years, as much as 50 percent of funding came in the fourth quarter of the year, around traditional American holiday time. Last year, fourth quarter donations dropped to 30 percent of total funding but the amount of money given increased overall throughout the year.
“(Donors) want to provide people the opportunity to celebrate the way they do,” Nicol said, citing one reason why holiday giving was such a large portion of donations. “People are thankful and reflective on what they have and they tend to buy more food during the holidays to share,” she added. Allowing anyone – regardless of access to resources – the ability to celebrate a holiday is a driving factor in Nicol’s personal motivation in her job, and providing that comes with heightened cultural sensitivity.
“We are trying to design our inventory system to be culturally appropriate to our neighbors,” Nicol said. Having a close relationship with the pantries and community partners that the Regional Food Bank gives food to (the food bank serves as a clearinghouse of donated and procured goods and distributes those goods to individual pantries, soup kitchens and community groups) allows Nicol and her team to distribute food that is cultural sensitive and aware. “Most of the food pantries are in touch with their neighbors in need. They let us know about their holidays,” Nicol said, and maintaining a close relationship with the 23-county service community means that food that meets various religious and cultural dietary preferences (think: halal-certified meat, the exclusion of pork or dairy, kosher food) gets to the people who need it.
“We work to be respectful of neighbors in need, but it is also about food waste. We are also focused on the reduction of food waste,” Nicol said, and used the example of one community served by the Regional Food Bank preferring dried beans over canned. Nicol’s team was quick to adjust to that preference, meaning the food will be used and not wasted, and the canned beans can go to another community.
Developing this understanding of community food needs and preferences upholds the Regional Food Bank’s commitment to the concept of dignity. “It is beyond food. Food is the fiber that holds us all together,” Nicol said. In the past, “food pantries just tried to fill everyone up,” she said. But today the focus has shifted to making sure nutritious, fresh and culturally appropriate food reaches those who most need it. “There are people who think food insecurity is an ethical judgement,” Nicol said, but the widespread impact of the pandemic has brought heightened compassion towards the issue of food security.
A compassionate viewpoint has extended to the pressures of life as a whole, and Nicol said that the desire to step back and consider the needs of family and career has had a specific impact on women. “Young women stepping back isn’t a bad thing,” Nicol said, and on the climb to the c-suites, choosing to hold steady in less senior positions may be the key to making it all work. Nonprofits tend to be flexible with family time and a good professional environment for working mothers, Nicol said, and when the organization’s mission meets women in their connection to family, the benefits of the job stretch beyond the job title.
Deanna Fox is a freelance journalist. More at www.foxonfood.com and on social media @DeannaNFox. 
Deanna Fox is a freelance food and agriculture journalist who travels the globe in search of the story, meaning and purpose of our food heritage and systems. She focuses specifically on food history, the business of agriculture, profiles and trend reporting, home cooking and the socio-political implications of food. You can reach her at deannanfox@gmail.com.

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