This is the most important week of the year for Nancy E. Roman, president of the Capital Area Food Bank.
The end of the year is when individuals, foundations and companies write checks for their favorite charities, including the food bank.
Millions roll in this week.
Think of the food bank as a giant warehouse like a Home Depot or Lowe’s that receives, packages and then distributes fresh fruits and vegetables and packaged food such as cereal, ketchup, nuts and flour.
From its sprawling warehouse/headquarters on Puerto Rico Avenue in Northeast Washington, the food bank distributes 44 million pounds of food annually to about 500,000 of our citizens, or about 12 percent of the local population.
Twelve percent of the local population.
Roman has been president almost three years, bringing new energy after the successful
33-year run by the food bank’s founder, Lynn Brantley.
“I’ve tried to bring the spirit of innovation so that we can source better food, create demand for healthy food and move the needle on wellness, ” said the hard-charging Roman, 54.
Those 44 million pounds come from four channels. Retailers, such as Giant, Harris Teeter and Shoppers Food Warehouse, donate. Individuals contribute through food drives. Governments give the food bank items. And, last, the organization purchases food with donated money.
The food is delivered to those in need in two ways. The first is through 444 front-line partners such as Manna, Bread for the City, D.C. Central Kitchen, Martha’s Table, Food for Others and SOME. Those partners either pick up food or receive it from one of the food bank’s fleet of 21 trucks. The second way is direct deliveries by Roman’s team, such as trucks driving into neighborhoods and giving away boxes of food from the back of the vehicle. Recipients include the underprivileged and seniors, and it’s free.
The food bank employs 127 people on an operating budget of $20.7 million annually. It distributes more than $40 million worth of food. Last year, its combined budget — the money and in-kind food donations it takes in — was about $68 million.
Making all that work is a logistical challenge, which is why I thought it interesting to write about. Giving away food — or even money — sounds easy, but it’s not. It needs to be efficient, or the donations get wasted on administration, salaries and whatnot.
Roman boasts that 93 cents of every dollar donated goes to serving the community.
She has introduced several business practices to modernize and improve efficiency, some of which she brought from three decades of executive experience in the private and nonprofit sectors.
Roman’s approach resembles something out of a corporate playbook, starting with her tagging $250,000 from Howard Buffett, the billionaire Warren’s son, to invest in technology.
She built a database to measure results and a “hunger heat map” to visualize geographic areas that are underserved by the food bank, allowing it to target those neighborhoods.
“My business experience has brought an entrepreneurial approach for tackling some of the hard parts of hunger work,” she said.
●Improving the healthfulness of the food bank groceries. Her team did such things as limiting sugary soft drinks and sheet cakes, resulting in more healthful offerings.
●Building a conveyor belt that helped lower the cost of delivering a pound of food from $1.11 when she arrived to 78 cents now.
●Instituting a mantra that “every 40 cents we saved was another meal for another child.”
●Partnering with Martha’s Table to create fruit and vegetable markets in every elementary school in Southeast Washington.
●Forging partnerships with businesses such as Uber. The car service picks up small food donations that might otherwise be ignored.
●Reorganizing the staff into smaller, regional teams and setting quarterly goals.
Roman used Shoppers Food Warehouse donations to retrofit a school bus to deliver food in difficult-to-reach, low-income neighborhoods in Prince William County.
She even started touchy-feely stuff such as teaching some of the chefs at the food bank’s partner organizations to create dishes that boost the attraction of unloved but nutritious foods, such as wheat, rice and eggplant.
As with any business or nonprofit, the mission begins and ends with money. Roman shook up the financial team, instituting accountability measures that helped produce a small surplus.
Her philosophical approach to the issue of hunger is that it is both a driver of poverty and the result of it.
“Alleviating hunger is foundational to addressing education, health and employment,” Roman said.
Roman arrived at the food bank after a 25-year international career spanning journalism, business, U.S. government, Wall Street and the United Nations.
She graduated from Baylor University in 1983 and earned a master’s in foreign policy from Johns Hopkins in 1985. She was a reporter and then a senior staff member for a Florida congressman.
Roman, who is very direct, won’t discuss money. She appears to have made a bunch of it early on by taking a big leap. (“The key jobs are jumping-off-cliff jobs,” she said.)
Roman built a successful practice for consultant G7 Group (now known as the Observatory Group), a company that advised Wall Street on central banks, politics and regulatory policy. It was “news you can use” for the financial crowd.
“I learned in an entrepreneurial way to take an idea and build it into something that really mattered.”
She next worked for the Council on Foreign Relations from 2004 to 2007, most of which was spent visiting dozens of Washington office buildings as part of her assignment to find a new headquarters for the organization.
“You learn a lot, really, just going into place after place and comparing real estate per square foot,” she said.
She was on her porch at her home in Bethesda one day when she received a call from Josette Sheeran, then the executive director of the U.N. World Food Programme.
“She told me to get on a plane to Rome if I wanted a job,” Roman said.
It was another leap from a cliff. And it introduced her to the subject of hunger.
From August 2007 to November 2012, Roman was director of public policy, communications and private partnerships at the World Food Programme.
She broadened her portfolio even more, serving on a five-person leadership team at the 15,000-person organization. She also chaired the group’s investment committee, which had more than $1 billion under management.
Her big accomplishment was increasing donations from the private sector from $20 million a year to $120 million when she left.
In November 2012, the Capital Area Food Bank came calling.
“Some people hear about my career and say, ‘What does any of that have to do with the food bank?’ ” she said. “Everything I’ve ever done has been a piece of the learning experience that’s helping to make me effective as I move across really challenging and intractable problems that good people have been working on for a long time.”
Such as hunger.