Hang out with Trudy Novicki, president and CEO of Florida Impact, long enough, and you’ll likely get schooled on childhood hunger in Florida.
|Since taking the helm, Novicki has shored up Florida Impact's financial policies, renewed its relationships with various funding partners and secured the extension of its major Social Innovation grant through April 2019.|
It will be a gracious schooling—no condescending lectures or judgments—just passionate insights from a state prosecutor-turned-child advocate whose eyes have been opened to a stark reality.
“I didn’t really know a lot about nutrition issues—didn’t know anything about nutrition issues, actually—except that there were an awful lot of children in the child welfare system who were hungry,” said Novicki, who took over the 38-year-old nonprofit in January, 2017.
‘Bringing me along’
Novicki is no stranger to societal ills. Her professional experience includes supervising the child abuse unit as a chief assistant state attorney in Miami-Dade County from 1985 to 2003 and serving as the executive director of Kristi House, the child advocacy center in Miami-Dade, from 2003 to 2014.
But at the helm of Florida Impact, she faced a steep learning curve.
To educate herself, Novicki leaned on her training as a lawyer, conducting countless hours of research on hunger and reading state statutes and scholarly articles.
“I also brought in three interns for research projects that helped a lot,” she said. “The staff of Florida Impact have a lot of combined knowledge and have been very patient in bringing me along.”
Perhaps most integral were two of Florida Impact’s national partners, Food Research & Action Center and Share Our Strength, which gave her the opportunity to attend several conferences on hunger across the country.
But it’s Florida Impact’s long history and mission—securing economic justice in Florida by connecting community organizations to federal dollars—that keeps Novicki focused. Since its start in 1979, the nonprofit has leveraged roughly $4 billion in public money to serve an estimated 800,000 low-income Floridians. With a staff of six full-time employees and three contractors, all located in different regions of the state, the agency advocates for funding and change in multiple areas that include free school meals, summer nutrition for children, assistance to homeless families, affordable housing and food stamps for legal immigrants.
Since taking the helm, Novicki has shored up Florida Impact’s financial policies, renewed its relationships with various funding partners and secured the extension of its major Social Innovation grant through April 2019. In the coming year, she hopes to help more senior citizens take advantage of food stamp eligibility and increase immigrants’ access to food.
“We’ve got lots to do, and I trust that there will be a way to do it,” said Novicki, a devout Catholic. “I rely on prayer a lot. …I’m not saying God will take care of it—so I don’t have to worry about it or make a plan—but I’m doing my work, and I trust that what’s supposed to happen will happen.”
A hidden issue
A mother of five, who also has five grandchildren, Novicki is passionate about reversing what she calls “a tremendous lack of awareness” of hunger in Florida and the rest of the country.
“Even if people have heard that one in five people in the country suffers food insecurity, they kind of don’t want to believe it,” she said. “I think it’s like, ‘It can’t be happening in our country. There can’t be hungry people in America!’”
She also longs to take away the stigma that surrounds those who suffer from food insecurity.
“I have found it’s almost a hidden issue because the victims of hunger, if you want to call them that, don’t want you to know they are hungry,” she said.
A few months ago, Novicki visited a school where second- and third-graders were able to select breakfast items from a cart and take it to their classrooms to eat. Most of the children were excited and happy to share what they liked about the meal, but she noticed an older girl who was sitting off to the side
“I asked her if she enjoyed eating in the classroom, and she said that even though she was in an older grade, she snuck in to eat with the younger children in the classroom because the kids in the cafeteria ‘bothered her,’” Novicki said. “The teachers confirmed that several of the older children would show up at the classroom because they were more comfortable there. I was touched by how important it is that we not only feed our children breakfast but provide a safe, welcoming space for those who are often most in need.”
|Programs like Summer BreakSpot, which Florida Impact helped advocate, have made a difference. The federally-funded program allows communities to serve healthy meals to children in low-income areas during summer.|
Making some noise
Novicki says her decision to do advocacy work was heavily influenced by three exceptional women.
“The first was my mother, who was just a very strong, principled, Christian woman, who always worked all her life to help support her family,” she said. “The second was Janet Reno, who was my first boss and who I remained very, very close friends with until her death. She taught me to always do the right thing. To just always work for the good, no matter what other people think. And the third one is a lady who is still around and still a friend, Berta Blecke. She founded or helped found, almost every major child advocacy program in Miami. She was always a volunteer, never made one penny for all her hard work at all hours of the day and night.”
Novicki often reflects on Blecke’s words when she gets discouraged by limited funding.
“She would say, ‘Well if you’re doing your job right, that’s how a not-for-profit is supposed to run. You are supposed to do as much as you possibly can and then raise the funds to catch up!’” she said. “If you’re sitting on a big pile of money, you’re not a very good nonprofit. You’re helping your organization, but you’re not really accomplishing your mission.”
Novicki said each of those women taught her the importance of raising her voice for righteous causes.
“I love working on children’s issues,” she said. “I love being able to make noise about what the right thing is.”
But the path of a nonprofit isn’t easy, and the challenges can take a toll.
“I tell my staff just stay at it. Go to the next step. That’s the job,” Novicki said. “If everybody was cooperating and everybody realized hunger was an issue, we wouldn’t have to be here. So, let’s put ourselves out of business!”
--Kari C. Barlow is a freelance journalist based in Pensacola.
Editor’s Note: If you would like to help stop childhood hunger in our state and support many other issues of vital importance, Florida Advocacy Days (Children’s Week) is scheduled for Jan. 21-23, 2018, in Tallahassee. Click here for more information.
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