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Baltimore Is Focusing On Food To Transform Cities For The Future

Food is the underlying lifeblood of our communities. It connects us to each other, sustains us and helps us understand more about the natural environment. Regular access to quality, healthy food directly impacts the quality of life and environment. However, there are many cities around the world who do not have systems and policies in place to ensure that food is distributed in a way that is good for people and the planet. 

Baltimore City however, is leading the development of healthy food systems. They have a long history with urban food policies and initiatives that are equitable and sustainable for the people of the city. At the recent Milan Urban Food Policy Pact Conference in Montpellier, I met with Holly Freishtat who is the Food Policy Director at Baltimore City to discuss her role and the impact of food policy in the area.
The city’s mission is to build Baltimore as a diverse, sustainable and thriving city of neighbourhoods and as the economic and cultural driver for the region. Food is a core theme to their mission as it touches the local environment, the health of people and economic development. 

Food Policy in Baltimore

The catalyst for creating a food policy director came as a recommendation from a report analysing food in the city. The role doesn’t fit in any particular department as initiatives and policies relating to food straddle all departments including city operations, health and community, economic and neighbourhood development as well as city governance. 

‘Food does not belong in any one agency as food fits in all agencies. The city is also only one component to the solution and we must engage collaboratively with academic research institutions, retailers and most importantly residents who have the lived experience. My role as the Food Policy Director is to be the connector. I help all the departments move to address the greatest needs relating to food in their division.’ Holly explained her role and why it is important. 

Another key part of the role is to flagging food policies from a federal, state and local level and seeing how they will impact the city. Holly said that a major aspect of her role is that she is laser focused on food. ‘I constantly have my finger on the pulse at a local, state and federal level to ensure our city can make proactive change.’ Holly shared. 

The way they approach this is broad ranging and Holly sees her role as developing a strong and resilient food system. Taking a food system approach helps to build long term networks and initiatives that can move beyond city election cycles. This is however incredibly complex and ambitious to complete. Holly stressed the importance of a dedicated team who can work across departments and with external partners to ensure the success of the food system approach. 

‘We need to plan for food. If we can plan for food, we will see a more sustainable and equitable food system which is good for our residents and the environment.’  

Holly Freishtat, Food Policy Director at Baltimore City

Holly started as the only Food Policy employee in 2010 and built the profile, policy and initiatives relating to food. The team continues to expand with a food access planner, food resilience planner and soon a food systems planner. The growth of these roles is happening across the country with Seattle for example having about 7-8  employees dedicated to food systems. Food policy and system development is a comprehensive subject matter that is becoming more commonly understood across the United States and around the world. 

Impact to date

Healthy Food Priority Area Mapping

Since the role commenced in 2010, food has become a core focus for the city of over 600 000 people. 

A key task was to map the access to healthy food across the city, understanding where to prioritise activities. These priority areas are often inhabited by low socioeconomic members of the community. Not having access to healthy food can result in obesity, diabetes, heart disease and ultimately lower life expectancy.
To combat these healthy food priority areas, formerly known as food deserts, the city created tax incentives for healthy supermarkets to open up their shops. Another of their initiatives is SNAP, a virtual supermarket. It allows seniors and disabled residents living in food deserts to order online, have the local supermarket deliver the food and accept their food stamps at the time of delivery.

According to their website, the number of people living in Healthy Food Priority Areas has declined from 25% in 2015 to 23.5% in 2018. Since 2015, as a result of the Personal Property Tax Credit legislation that the city passed, at least 5,000 fewer residents live in Priority Areas due to the opening of a new supermarket in East Baltimore.

Signing the Pact

In 2015, Baltimore City signed the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact (MUFPP) on World Food Day. The six focus areas of the pact include:

  • Ensuring an enabling environment for effective action
  • Sustainable diets and nutrition
  • Social and economic equity
  • Food production
  • Food supply and distribution
  • Food waste.

Due to their extensive work in the years leading up to signing the pact, in 2016, Baltimore City received the highest score for governance related to food policy at the MUFPP convening in Rome on World Food Day. The award commended the city for its ability to use intergovernmental collaboration to effectively address food access and food systems issues.

Building a network to drive greater impact

‘Having an impact in Baltimore is important but understanding how these insights and experiences can help other cities increases our impact.’ Holly explained. 

To build this network, the United States Conference of Mayors (USCM) established a food policy task force in 2013 as recommended by the Mayor of Chicago and the previous First Lady, Michelle Obama. One of the goals of the taskforce was to grow the movement of food policy and mayors advocating for food policy around the country. 

This involved many of the early cities, including Baltimore working with other city mayors and advocating for food policy roles in their city departments. There are now 17 cities who are now actively engaged in food policy development across the country. 

The Obama era was instrumental for increasing the profile and importance of food agenda in the United States. ‘One of the impactful things they did was align and coordinate networks like food policy employees around the country to have a collective vision for the state of food in the United States.’ Holly shared. ‘This was also backed by policy and programs including Let’s Move program, Healthy Food Access policies, Healthy Fresh Food Financing initiative, local and regional food system initiatives.’ 

The USCM food policy taskforce of Mayors adopted the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact collectively. To ensure the momentum, they meet regularly to discuss progress as well as share insights. For Holly, the informal network of food policy directors is incredibly powerful, which is food policy advisor network working within city government. They support and work with each other to implement food policies and initiatives. ‘It is an incredible learning exchange as it is high trust and a small network. We get into the specific details together and really show our work in progress with all the challenges that come along in the process. The more we can learn and get it right in our own cities, the more we can keep building the impact in other regions.’ 

Holly explained how Austin City used Baltimore City’s mapping methodology which allowed them to finalise the work in a shorter period due to the previous experience and work of Baltimore. Baltimore City now has a Healthy Food Priority Area Fund  which was made possible to the previous work of other cities who have already implemented them. This powerful information exchange is one that is regular, practical and trust focused. 

Throughout the conference there were people from various countries talking about how they are elevating the impact of their cities by connecting the food policy practitioners from other cities in the country. ‘The food policy advisor network really helps me get my job done.’ Holly shared. 

Building The Need For Food Policy Advisors

Food policy roles is one that Holly is passionate about developing around the world. ‘These roles are important because food is everywhere in your government but it may be hidden. There are so many social and environmental issues that can be solved through food.’ Holly gave three steps that helped her build momentum in her role advice is that an effective food policy role doesn’t need to have a 2 year planning process to create an effective food system. 

  1. Understand the baseline:  Interview and analyse what is happening in other departments to understand the current state. This can be undertaken quickly and it is best to keep it simple. These baseline interviews also help other departments to understand how food is impacting their strategies and builds a culture of understanding.
  2. Map existing activities to the pact: The Milan Urban Food Policy Pact alignment The pact doesn’t mean much if there is no implementation plan. Understanding how existing initiatives relate to the pact can help to build momentum for future initiatives. 
  3. Create a roadmap: Prioritise the most important areas to tackle based and establish networks that execute on those areas both within city government and with partners. 

Overall 

Understanding the role that food plays at a local level is critical. Holly’s role as Food Policy Director means she can dedicate her role to understanding linkages, developing policy and building partnerships that ultimately create positive social and environmental change in the city. 

It is important that cities are set up for future trends and that food systems are embedded within the environment just as that of a transport or education system.

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