Holly Freishtat is on a roll. For the past few minutes, she’s been politely answering biographical questions in a nondescript conference room on the eighth floor of a downtown government building, but now that the conversation has turned to food policy, she’s off and running.
From her mouth tumbles a dizzying array of plans, policies, and statistics related to the challenge she took on when she became Baltimore’s first food policy director (aka, its food czar) this spring. Freishtat’s job is to, as she puts it, “address food from a multi-sector perspective,” increasing citywide access to healthy, affordable food and establishing Baltimore as a leader in sustainable food systems. With citywide obesity rates hovering around 30 percent and a dearth of nutritional options available in the hardest-hit areas, she’s got her work cut out for her. But she seems resolute.
“I expect there will be resistance in areas, because if this was easy, it would have been done years ago,” she says, “But we’re working on these issues and we have all the right players to be able to address this.”
Starting with herself. Freishtat is one of a handful of food policy directors nationwide, putting Baltimore in a league with cities like Boston and New York.
“We knew we needed someone to be focused on [food policy] as a job in order to actually implement something because for everyone, it was their side job,” says Seema Iyer, chief of research and strategic planning for Baltimore City, who was also part of the Food Policy Task Force that studied these issues and ultimately hired Freishtat to tackle them. “Food is so interdisciplinary: It’s public health, it’s planning, it’s agriculture. Holly comes in with that knowledge—and she’s originally from Baltimore. She’s a huge asset.”
Freishtat, 37, grew up in Pikesville in a close-knit Jewish family and attended Garrison Forest School, always sensing her professional future would involve food.
“I’ve always been interested in access to food, and also the relationships between food and health, and food, agriculture, and the environment. They’re all codependent on each other. So that’s my passion,” she explains.
After high school, she earned a BS in nutrition from the University of Vermont and then went on to get her Masters in Food Policy from Tufts. A post-college stint in AmeriCorps took her to Washington State, where she lived for the next 14 years developing innovative food and farming initiatives. During that time, she also met and married her husband, Christopher Steckler, and, last year, they had a son, Heath Nolan Steckler.
Giving birth made Freishtat long for the support of her extended family, which is why it seemed like kismet when the food policy directorship opened up.
“When I moved here, I was still on maternity leave,” she says, noting that her new home is just down the street from her parents’ place in Monkton. “Then this position opened up and I was like, ‘This is too good to be true!’”
She started in April and was stunned to find that, in her absence, Baltimore had exploded into a foodie haven.
“I was so happily surprised by the quiet giant of Baltimore,” she says. “There are so many great things happening in Baltimore related to food and food access. You think, ‘Oh, California, Washington State, Seattle, Portland,’ but Baltimore’s right there, and, in many ways, very much a leader.”
One program generating interest is the Virtual Supermarket Project, a collaboration between the Health Department, Washington Village and Orleans Street Pratt Libraries, and Santoni’s Super Market in Highlandtown. During designated hours, residents can use library computers to place a grocery order that Santoni’s will drop off at the library the next day. It’s the only such program in the nation and a novel solution to the problem of so-called “food deserts.”
“A food desert is where there’s no supermarket within a quarter-mile, low vehicle ownership, and lots of fast food,” she explains, adding that there are plans to expand the ordering hours and start the program at another location soon.
Another step was the installation of Electronic Benefits Transfer [EBT] machines at farmers’ markets in Waverly, Highlandtown, and Park Heights, thus allowing low-income customers to purchase locally grown food via government benefits.
The most potentially transformative issue on her agenda, though, is “TransForm Baltimore,” the Planning Department’s rewrite of the city’s zoning codes. Among the many changes would be language allowing farming within city limits for the first time in decades.
“Right now, you cannot farm in Baltimore City. Once TransForm Baltimore is in place, urban agriculture can be in all zones, except industrial zones,” she says.
She envisions this paradigm shift yielding benefits far beyond the produce aisle. Crops could help feed local, impoverished communities, provide green jobs, and create green space within the city.
“We want to improve quality of life. It would help people come back into the city,” she enthuses.
Is she—no pun intended—biting off more than she can chew?
“It is very ambitious,” she acknowledges, “but we need ambition, because you only achieve great things if you have ambitious goals.”