When Holly Freishtat was in second or third grade, she grew a broccoli plant in her classroom at Garrison Forest School and got upset when it died. These days, Freishtat laughs at her younger self— as a sustainable food specialist with a background in nutrition and food policy, she’s well aware that dying plants are a part of growing food. After studying nutrition in college at the University of Vermont, Freishtat worked as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Washington state, where she established a project to transfer leftover produce from farmers markets into emergency food shelters. Later, she helped create a mobile slaughter facility on Lopez Island in Washington that allowed farmers to slaughter in their fields and get USDA inspection without shipping their meat off the island. Last year, Freishtat returned to Baltimore and in the spring, she became Baltimore City’s first “food czar,” charged with improving the health of the city’s residents by developing and implementing a range of food policies. She lives with her husband and 1-year-old son on a 20-acre farm in Monkton.
One doesn’t think of Baltimore as being in the forefront of food policy, but we’re one of only a handful of cities in the country with a food policy director, right?
We’re a quiet giant. We had a food policy task force that created 10 recommendations and hired me to implement them. Now we have a food policy advisory committee of about 40 people and there is so much good work being done. We have an Office of Sustainability— not many cities have an office with a sustainability plan to establish itself as a leader in sustainable local food systems.
Poor nutrition and obesity cause a range of health issues for people in Baltimore. What are some of the solutions you and your team advocate to get people to eat more healthfully?
We have to pay attention to our food deserts. These are places where people live more than a quarter-mile from a supermarket, where there’s low car ownership, low income and a low ratio of access to healthy food as opposed to unhealthy food. If you increase access to supermarkets and healthy affordable food, people will eat better.
You must have education and knowledge, too. People need to know how to cook food in the time they have— most people have time limitations and are just getting by. We also have to acknowledge that kids are feeding kids— parents are working jobs and older siblings are feeding younger siblings. At Reservoir Hill Rec Center they’re teaching kids how to cook, how to bake a chicken rather than fry it, how to improve packaged foods. You might be eating ramen, but you can take out the seasoning packet and add some vegetables instead.
What are some of the most exciting ideas for improving Baltimore’s food landscape?
We’re a depopulated city with a lot of vacant land in food deserts. It would be beautiful to see urban gardens and urban farms in these lots. Already we are bringing supermarkets into the libraries in our food deserts. You go to the library and order your food and the next day you pick it up. We have a lot of libraries, so this model is very conducive to the city.
Community supported agriculture (CSA) and farmers markets are very popular, but they seem to cater to people with higher incomes. How could they be more feasible for people earning lower incomes?
We’re a city of neighborhoods. Why don’t we apply that to food, and have neighborhood supported farms? Right now the CSA movement is not conducive to all income levels because you have to pay for it all upfront, so we need to think about that.
At the farmers markets, we don’t want to drive the prices down so we don’t have farmers, but we need to find creative solutions to address prices. For example, at the end of the day, the prices could be reduced. Also, all of the farmers markets should offer access to EBT machines so people can use their Independence cards— right now only three of the city’s 14 farmers markets offer that.
How do you feel about being known as a “food czar”?
I like being asked if I’m the food czar because it gives me an opportunity to define what a czar is. It’s not about telling people what they can’t eat, but about providing access to healthy, affordable food so they have choices.