Baltimore Gets One of the Country's First Food Czars

Posted by Peter Smith


The appointment of Holly Freishtat as Charm City's food policy director should be a lesson to other cities.

On a sweltering, humid day in East Baltimore, a couple greenhouses full of vegetables behind the Lake Clifton High School are about to become an oasis. They sit in a barren “food desert,” a place where residents can’t access to fresh food without hopping in a cab or walking to a bus and then travelling to the nearest supermarket. The neighborhood’s corner stores and chicken places tend to sell fast food—and, as a whole, these “food deserts” still cover a sizable portion of the city.

Two years ago, Baltimore decided to address some of the problems that come with food deserts in a typical bureaucratic fashion: by forming a task force. Different city agencies had different agendas. The Planning Department wanted to create better grocery stores and better transportation to grocery stores. The Health Department was trying to deal with double-digit levels of obesity, poor nutrition, and cardiovascular disease. Elected officials wanted to address the poor quality of life among their constituents. Seema Iyer, strategic planner for the city, says, “For each city agency, the pressing problem was a little bit different, but the final solution turned out to be exactly the same thing: access to healthy food.”

But since early May, there’s been added momentum to the efforts with the appointment of Holly Freishtat as food policy director, tasked with coordinating and implementing a comprehensive food policy for the city from her eighth floor offices in a drab, grime-covered building near City Hall. Her task is to promote farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture, foster urban agriculture with new zoning to increase food production within the city, and better market and educate consumers about healthy foods.

Sustainability might not be the first thing you think of when you think of Baltimore, but the city has been on the vangard, piloting two virtual supermarkets, where library patrons can order groceries online and then pick the items the next day. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has been working on a healthy corner stores initiative and Real Food Farms has been teaching high school students to grow and sell vegetables behind the Clifton Park school. Within the Planning Department, Freishtat hopes Transform Baltimore, a proposed draft zoning code, will allow more urban farming that could, in turn, increase the supply of produce within the city.

While the Baltimore Sun dubbed Freishtat the city’s first “food czar,” she says she does not intend to collectivize the city’s farms, ban junk food, or do away with iconic regional specialties, like pit beef, New York Fried Chicken, or coddies. “I've been redefining what ‘food czar’ means because by no means is my role to tell people what to eat,” she says. “It's about creating choice and access. So if you're in a low-income neighborhood, you should have the choice to access healthy, affordable food. If you want to go to your chicken box store or have crab cakes, or whatever food you would like, continue to do so, but you should have the choice and have it accessible and affordable to you. And so, this is not about telling people what to eat. It's about creating access to healthy food.”

Although no U.S. city has a Department of Food, Baltimore’s efforts aren’t alone. Food Policy Councils have been making inroads since 1982 when Knoxville, Tennessee formed the nation’s first council to address urban hunger and health issues. They’ve since spread to Portland, Oregon, New York, Chicago, and Boston. Still, a 2009 report from the Institute for Food and Development Policy found that most councils had no paid staff. It’s not different in Baltimore: The philanthropic Baltimore Community Foundation funds Freishtat’s position. But what’s unique is that she has a place within the planning department—inside city government.

Less than two years ago, Michael Pollan issued a call for a Farmer in Chief, a national food policy director on the Presidential Cabinet. While that hasn’t happened yet, Baltimore’s innovations should be the start of a new era of city government, with more paid positions to support holistic and comprehensive approaches to food. While each city needs food policy that focuses on different, local issues, just having positions within city government sends a message about how important health and food access is—and should represent the shape of things to come.