Food policy coordinator, among nation’s first, faces challenge to bring healthy food to poor

By Ben Nuckols, AP
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Food czar hopes to change the way Baltimore eats

BALTIMORE — At the Almost Everything Grocery & Deli in east Baltimore, a cashier hits a buzzer, allowing customers to open the locked door. Inside, they’re greeted by … very little.

Many of the dingy shelves are empty, the lights are off, and the odor of cat litter hangs in the air. There’s no fresh produce — sodas and salty snacks are the big sellers.

It’s a familiar scene in many of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods, but it’s something the city is trying to address in an innovative way.

Last month, Baltimore hired a food policy coordinator, making the city one of the first in the country with a paid “food czar.” While Holly Freishtat’s directive may be straightforward — get more healthy food on the tables of the people who need it — accomplishing it may not be.

She doesn’t get a budget for major initiatives, so much of her time is spent pursuing grant money. He salary doesn’t even come from the city, which recently raised taxes and cut services to close a $121 million budget deficit.

A coalition of nonprofits pays her salary, and they’ve only committed to cover 30 hours a week for a year. Nevertheless, this is progress.

“Baltimore is ahead of the curve in one sense in that they actually hired Holly,” said Mark Winne of the Community Food Security Coalition, who has worked with food policy councils for nearly 20 years. “The actual idea of putting staff into this is new, but I think it’s emblematic of the growth of food policy councils around the country.”

Dozens of cities and a handful of states have food policy councils, but they tend to function as advocacy groups, pushing change from outside government. Few have taken on paid staff. New York City hired a food czar in 2007 and is currently seeking his replacement. Boston, too, is in the process of hiring one. Kansas City, Mo., has a food policy coordinator, but she’s housed at a nonprofit.

Author and sustainable food advocate Michael Pollan has called on the federal government to establish a department of food. No city or state has one either.

“The urgency of the situation is that we have chronic health issues and disparities in our low-income neighborhoods,” Freishtat said. “Food access can make a difference.”

A study of Baltimore neighborhoods found that nearly a fifth of its 630,000 residents live with little or no access to fresh foods — neighborhoods often described as “food deserts.” Meanwhile, more than two-thirds of adults and nearly half of all high school students are overweight or obese and the death rate from heart disease is 30 percent higher than in the rest of Maryland.

Freishtat works out of the planning department, and her job is to implement the 10 recommendations for improving the city’s food system made last December by Baltimore’s food policy task force. They include expanding access to farmers markets, community gardens and community-supported agriculture; improving the food served in city schools; and pushing for new zoning laws that remove roadblocks to food production and sales.

The city is seeking funding, from the same nonprofits and other groups, to make Freishtat’s position full-time and permanent. Because taxpayers aren’t paying her salary, city officials wouldn’t say how much money she makes.

Seema Iyer, a division chief in the city’s planning department who led the effort to hire Freishtat, said her role is to coordinate disparate efforts related to food. When city employees encounter a food-related problem, they now have someone to call who has expertise, Iyer said.

Winne said it’s not realistic to expect Freishtat to implement all the food task force’s recommendations on her own, but thinks she still will prove invaluable even during the first year.

“A food policy person’s overall responsibility should be the bigger picture,” he said. “It’s not to go off and set up a farmer’s market or set up a community garden.”

And no matter how impressive her title, Freishtat can’t just talk Safeway into opening a supermarket in the blighted inner city. Nor can she persuade corner store owners to change a business model that’s worked for decades.

Almost Everything Grocery & Deli owner Antonio Melvin used to offer more products — including healthier ones, like turkey burgers, whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables — when he opened two years ago. It didn’t work.

“I put fruit in here, it goes bad. Everybody wants unhealthy stuff. That’s the diet that people have been brought up in,” he said. “I try to provide more, but it’s killing me as a business owner.”

Melvin said he’d stock more healthy options if he got some incentives from the city. It’s yet another idea already on Freishat’s to-do list.

Freishat’s few counterparts around the country have confronted similar problems.

In Kansas City, small farmers who did community-supported agriculture — selling produce from their homes to customers who pay a membership fee — were technically breaking the law. Beth Low, the city’s food policy coordinator, worked with officials to change that.

New York’s former food czar, Benjamin Thomases, launched a program that hands out mobile food vendor licenses to people who agree to sell fresh fruits and vegetables in underserved neighborhoods. He also established health standards for the 225 million meals and snacks that city agencies provide each year.

In Baltimore, some initiatives have shown modest success. This spring, the city began a “virtual supermarket” program. One day a week, customers can order groceries online at two library branches in communities that qualify as food deserts. They can pay with food stamps, if needed, and the groceries are delivered, free of charge, to the libraries the next day.

The program has been hailed as innovative, but so far the city hasn’t done much to promote it to potential customers. Pooja Aggarwal, who’s in charge of it, said the library branch in East Baltimore gets fewer than 10 grocery customers, even on a busy day. Turnout at the other branch across town is even lighter. Meanwhile, she said, thousands of residents of nearby public housing complexes are sharing cars, hailing hack cabs or riding buses to get to grocery stores.

The program was in place before Freishtat arrived, but she said she’ll work to get the word out and expand it to additional libraries, or perhaps schools.

Jacqueline Coles, 33, a custodian at the library, said she shops every week at the virtual supermarket and that she and her three children have been eating healthier meals since it was started.

“I’ve been buying a lot of meats versus buying chicken nuggets and stuff like that,” Coles said. “I’ve got a refrigerator full of fresh meats, fresh vegetables.”

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