Holly Freishtat, the Baltimore City Department of Planning’s food policy director, announced she is moving on to a job with the Milken Institute. Photo courtesy of Baltimore City Department of Planning.
Holly Freishtat, the Baltimore City Department of Planning’s food policy director, announced she is moving on to a job with the Milken Institute. Photo courtesy of Baltimore City Department of Planning.

Baltimore’s first and only “food czar,” Holly Freishtat, is leaving her job and applying what she’s learned on a national level.

“After 11+ years as the Food Policy Director with the Department of Planning, I have just accepted a position at the Milken Institute as the Director of Feeding Change,” Freishtat announced on LinkedIn.

“My last day with the city is Dec. 23rd and will begin with the Milken Institute January 3rd. I have loved my time working for the city and big thank you for all the amazing people I have worked with over the past decade.”

Taylor LaFave, the city’s food system planner, will serve as the city’s Acting Chief of Food Policy and Planning as of Jan. 3, Freishtat said in a follow-up message. “His background in food planning and COVID-19 emergency food response will be a great asset to the city,” she said.

Few people knew exactly what a food czar was when Freishtat took on the role in April 2010, just after Stephanie Rawlings-Blake succeeded Sheila Dixon as mayor of Baltimore, but she showed how much the city needs one. In the process, she became one of the most admired employees in city government and the public face of Baltimore’s efforts to fight hunger and food insecurity.

Baltimore’s planning department has staffers who look at buildings and public spaces in terms of zoning, design, economic development, preservation, sustainability and other measures. Freishtat looked at planning issues through a lens of food safety, health and nutrition for city residents.

As Baltimore’s first food policy director, she founded and supervised the city department’s Food Policy & Planning Division and the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative. Her goal was to build an “equitable and resilient food system” for the city, by working with 19 city agencies and more than 90 community stakeholders and “food equity advisors,” including the city’s schools, public markets and farmers’ markets. She worried about food security and food deserts (later named “healthy food priority areas”) and worked to create food hubs that bring healthy eating options to even the poorest city residents.

During the COVID pandemic, she developed and led planning for the $66 million COVID-19 Strategy to Improve Nutritional Security and Minimize Hunger in Baltimore. She directed the citywide COVID-19 Produce and Grocery Box Distribution program. On behalf of the city, she wrote, secured and managed 35 grants and contracts, helping secure more than $35 million to support 40 nutrition and agriculture programs and policies.

In 11 years, Freishtat worked under four Baltimore mayors (Rawlings-Blake; Catherine Pugh; Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Brandon Scott.) Over that time, she became a sought-after public speaker and expert on food-related issues, interviewed by outlets such as NBC, the Huffington Post, Politico and the Associated Press. On LinkedIn, she describes herself as a “food system thought leader” and “food as medicine strategist.”

Hundreds of people from around the country have reacted to Freishtat’s departure on social media, with dozens leaving her messages of gratitude and congratulations. In response to questions, Freishtat said on LinkedIn that she will remain in Maryland after moving to her new job.

“Huge loss for the city. Big win for food policy at big picture level,” said Lorraine Doo, a senior policy advisor with the federal government. “You’ve been such an asset to the city and have left an indelible mark here and elsewhere. Thank you!”

“You’ve done some cutting edge work with city government and really shown the possibility of the position,” said Branden Born, an associate professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. “Milken is fortunate to have you.”

“More families and kids had access to food in Baltimore thanks to your commitment,” said Julia Baez, CEO at Baltimore’s Promise, a citywide collaborative dedicated to improving outcomes for Baltimore’s youths.

“We will miss you at the city but sounds like an exciting opportunity,” said Maryland State Del. Brooke Lierman.

Founded in 1991, the Milken Institute is a non-profit, non-partisan, California-based think tank that “strives to improve lives around the world by advancing innovative economic and policy solutions that create jobs, widen access to capital and enhance health.” It publishes research and hosts conferences that apply market-based principles and financial innovations to social issues in the U. S. and abroad.

The institute’s founder and chairman is Michael Milken, an American financier, philanthropist and presidentially pardoned felon once known as the “junk bond king,” who was indicted for racketeering and securities fraud in 1989 on an insider trading investigation. As the result of a plea bargain, he pleaded guilty to securities and reporting violations but not to racketeering or insider trading.

Milken, 75, was fined $600 million, sentenced to 10 years in prison and barred from the securities industry. His sentence was later reduced to two years for cooperating with testimony against his former colleagues and for good behavior. He actually served 22 months in prison. Former President Donald Trump pardoned him in 2020.

Since his release from prison, Milken has become known for his charitable giving. Besides leading the Milken Institute, he is co-founder of the Milken Family Foundation; head of the Milken Center for Advancing the American Dream, and founder of medical philanthropies funding research into melanoma, cancer and other diseases.

A prostate cancer survivor and father of three, Milken has a net worth estimated at $3.7 billion and has been ranked by Forbes as the 606th richest person in the world. With architect Shalom Baranes, he’s building a 60,000-square-foot museum in Washington, D.C., that will tell the story of the American Dream through the eyes of people who have sought it, and is scheduled to open on July 4, 2023.

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.