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Cities create 'food czars': Can they get residents to eat their sprouts?

A handful of cities are targeting obesity and hunger by putting a 'food czar' in charge of food-related policy – from getting greens in local markets to coordinating inner city microfarms.

By Julia Marsh/ Contributor / February 9, 2011

Baltimore food czar Holly Freishtat visited the nonprofit Real Food Farm on Jan. 12. She sees the site as a model for urban agriculture, and is now eyeing 35 acres of city land for similar healthy-food projects.

Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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Baltimore

What do a lawyer, an urban planner, and a chef have in common?

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One of each is now a "food czar" – also known as a food-policy director – for a major US city.

A half-dozen big cities have recently installed food czars, whose responsibility is to improve residents' access to healthy, affordable food. This is one of the latest attempts to address both hunger and obesity, as well as related health issues.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, among other mayors, has backed the food-czar approach. It's an outgrowth of food-policy councils, which have worked on myriad food-related issues. The hope behind food czars is that a sole paid staff person can function more nimbly than the bureaucracy of a larger council.

It's not a fluke that food czars come from varied backgrounds. In their new role, they need to draw on a multitude of skills, and they need to work effectively with a mix of organizations, from city agencies to food banks to supermarkets. "It's brilliant to have someone who is the architect of bringing all these folks together," says Deborah Flateman, chief executive officer of the Maryland Food Bank in Baltimore.

San Francisco was the first major US city to welcome a food czar, in 2002. Now Baltimore, New York, Boston, and Los Angeles have them as well.

They face a daunting task: In 2009, more than 17 million families went hungry in America, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Thirty-four percent of adults and 17 percent of children are obese, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For cities, one particular problem is "food deserts" – low-income areas where the prevalent food options are chips and soda at corner stores instead of leafy green vegetables at supermarkets.

The food-czar positions to address these issues are "embryonic," says Gus Schumacher, vice president of policy at Wholesome Wave, a Connecticut nonprofit that convened the first-ever meeting of food czars last November in New York. "The fact that there is such enthusiasm bodes well, but these cities are on tight budgets."

Only two food czars are full-time employees of the cities they serve, and the rest are funded through short-term grants. None has an independent budget.

In Baltimore, Holly Freishtat came on board as food-policy director last April.

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