Nancy Roman: Fighting for a Healthy America

Nancy E. Roman, BA ’83, is president and CEO of Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA), a nonpartisan, nonprofit “devoted to working with the private sector to ensure the health of our nation’s youth by solving the childhood obesity crisis.” Roman joined PHA in 2017, following an international career spanning journalism, business and public service with the U.S. government and the United Nations. She was recently named one of “The Most Powerful Women in Washington” by Washingtonian magazine. 

Established in 2010, PHA was created “with the goal of ending the national epidemic of childhood obesity within a generation. PHA’s strategy rests on transforming the marketplace, so that the healthy choice becomes the easy choice for American families.” Supporting PHA’s effort are former First Lady Michelle Obama, physician and former U.S. Sen. William Frist, and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker.

Nancy Roman

From 2013 to 2017, Roman was president and CEO of the Capital Area Food Bank (CAFB), the Washington, D.C., region’s largest organization to solve hunger and its companion problems. Prior to joining CAFB, Roman was on the leadership team of the United Nation’s World Food Programme (WFP), the world’s largest humanitarian agency feeding 100 million people in 75 countries. Roman also has served as vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.; as president of the G7 Group, a strategic consulting firm; and as a journalist covering politics, congress, foreign policy and economics. Roman is married to Steven Cohen and has two children, Daniel and Taylor Beth. 

According to ahealthieramerica.org, childhood obesity rates in the U.S. were at 17 percent in 2010. Can you provide some context on how serious of an issue this is? 

Unfortunately, despite a lot of good work, obesity rates in the U.S. are going up. One out of three children are overweight or obese, and 38 percent of adults are overweight or obese. With that rise comes increased rates of heart disease and diabetes. A new report has just been released, and it finds that 100 million Americans have diabetes or prediabetes. 

What makes PHA’s approach to childhood obesity distinct from other efforts? Why is it particularly effective? 

PHA’s approach is to leverage the power of the private sector to bring lasting systemic changes that improve the healthfulness of food or increase physical activity. We so often expect nonprofits and government to take full responsibility for solving society’s problems. But in our capitalist society, the private sector has power to make a real difference. 

From major corporations to universities and hospitals, PHA has more than 225 partners. What does that partnership usually entail? 

Our corporate partners are committed to working to make their food better for you while preserving the taste. For example, working with PHA, Dannon cut the sugar content in 78 percent of its products—including 100 percent of products intended for children—to less than 23 grams of total sugar per six ounces. We also have college and university partners who commit to establishing healthy campuses, and food banks who commit to improving the nutritional quality of their food inventory. 

Why would a for-profit company make a commitment to PHA? Are these companies concerned about hurting their bottom lines? 

A for-profit company makes a commitment, not to PHA, but through PHA to the public, to either remove added sugar, sodium, and saturated fat or to make other changes that help the public eat better. The strength of this approach is that it is built on sustainable business practices. We want companies to make changes that improve the healthfulness of food without reducing the pleasure of eating. That means public health can improve while the bottom lines grow, too. 

What are some examples of the commitments that have been made? What are the results? 

In the last few years, 12 of the nation’s top food brands have cut 6 trillion calories from their products. Food distributors are now offering and promoting healthier foods to more than 75,000 convenience stores. The Kwik Trip chain experienced a 5.5 percent increase in fresh produce sales in its first year as a PHA partner. The Feeding America network has vowed to bring healthier options to some 46 million people served by food banks. And it is not just about food. PHA partners Nike, Reebok, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Mercedes Benz have pledged $124 million to promote and encourage participation in youth sports and fitness. 

How does PHA measure progress toward ending the crisis? 

That is a great question because so many of us have been working to reduce obesity while we see the statistics going in the opposite direction. We are right in the middle of setting a bold and audacious goal. I can’t share the specifics, but I can tell you that our goals will be tangible and measurable. Metrics are critical not only as a way to measure your accomplishment but to effectively tell the story of your work. 

Many of Baylor Magazine’s readers are familiar with the University’s Texas Hunger Initiative (THI). Can organizations like PHA and THI collaborate or learn from each other? 

Yes, absolutely. Prior to joining PHA, I ran one of the nation’s largest food banks. That role provided a window into issues associated with high rates of obesity among the low-income people who turned to food banks for help. Poverty increases the odds of having obesity and the associated health conditions. That’s because low-income people have more access to processed food and fast food, and less access to fruits and vegetables. So our issues are in many ways very much connected. 

What are some of your memories or favorite influences from your time at Baylor? 

I loved my time at Baylor and remember well Dr. Vardaman’s history class, and Edith Potter’s French class. Certainly I remember Dr. Loyal Gould’s war stories about his time working for the AP. I also remember all-nighters in Collins Hall, many good friends, and the day-in and day-out collaboration involved in putting out the Lariat as managing editor. 

 Learn more about Roman and PHA at ahealthieramerica.org.