Making 'The Apple Pushers,' a Film About New York's Street Vendors

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Award-winning documentary filmmaker Mary Mazzio on how one passionate philanthropist brought attention to the Big Apple's cart squad.

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Our newest film, The Apple Pushers (narrated by Edward Norton), was conceived two years ago at the Aspen Ideas Festival. After attending a screening of our prior film, TEN9EIGHT, which was about inner city entrepreneurs, Laurie Tisch, creator and head of the Illumination Fund, said to me "I have this wild idea." As a documentary filmmaker, lots of ideas come across my desk -- but ideas don't necessarily translate into good stories that can have impact. Unless there is passion. And it was clear when Laurie started talking about the work her foundation was doing around the issue of food and social justice in low-income communities, that she was incredibly passionate.

Laurie told me about an initiative she was helping to fund in a public-private partnership with the city of New York called the Green Carts Program, in which hundreds of street vendors ("micro-entrepreneurs," as economists like to call them) were rolling carts of fruits and vegetables into poor neighborhoods, where finding a ripe apple was almost impossible and where obesity rates were skyrocketing. Green Cart vendors were a newly legislated class of street vendor, permitted to sell only fresh fruits and vegetables and only in certain areas. She paused. "What do you know about food deserts?"

"Um," I replied, instantly monosyllabic. She then laid out her wild idea -- a documentary film that would highlight the issue of food deserts, but also chronicle the lives and livelihoods of these street vendors. Laurie's vision was that such a film might help other cities think creatively about out-of-the-box ways to solve the obesity and food desert crisis.

The 20 million Americans living in food deserts across the country truly have no access to fruits or vegetables or low-fat milk.

Until my conversation with Laurie, I had not even heard the term "food desert." After starting to research the issues around food deserts and the devastating health consequences stemming from what are essentially redlined food districts, I got on the train from Boston, where I live, to visit food deserts in New York, which are exactly where you might expect (Harlem and the South Bronx, to name two neighborhoods). Corner after corner was jammed with fast food restaurants and fried chicken joints -- at every intersection and on every thoroughfare, sometimes three on a corner.

Right about then I started to get hungry, having only the last few sips of my cold Starbucks decaf Mochaccino. Only there was no place to stop for lunch. Well, no place if I didn't want my stomach lurching all afternoon from greasy fries and a triple Whopper. And I am embarrassed to say, that's when it hit me, a white-blue-eyed-Whole-Foods-eating-mom who does not live in a food desert. The three million residents of these New York City neighborhoods -- plus the other 20 million Americans living in food deserts across the country -- truly have no access to fruits or vegetables or low-fat milk. They have nothing that would constitute a healthy meal.

But, as often happens during the early stages of a documentary, the story turned into much more than just food deserts. I went on a hunt in search of the Green Cart vendors. There they were -- pushing heavy steel carts loaded with produce. All with big green umbrellas.

I was a bit worried as to whether these vendors would even talk to me, since I was clearly not from the neighborhood. I plunged in, buying fruit and asking questions. The more I bought, the more they talked. Nearly every produce vendor I met was a first generation immigrant. They were an amazing array of ethnicities and cultures -- the United Nations of vendors. I peppered them with questions about their business and their lives, and was surprised to find that they came to America for the same reasons my great-grandparents did. (They started under similar circumstances, selling bootlegged liquor from a cart. A hidden cart, naturally.) These vendors were here in search of a better life for their children. And their children's children.

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Mary Mazzio wrote, directed, and produced Lemonade Stories, A Hero for Daisy, Apple Pie, The Apple Pushers, and other documentaries. She founded the independent film company 50 Eggs.

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