Using Produce Carts and Ingenuity to Make Food Deserts Bloom

In her review of "The Apple Pushers," Tracie McMillan praises the documentary's focus on a set of deeply entrepreneurial street vendors.

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There are few images of old-time New York that resonate more than the street peddler. Profoundly urban and deeply entrepreneurial, a scruffy immigrant haggling over the price of the produce on his or her cart is an icon of the early American capitalism. Filmmaker Mary Mazzio grasps the power of that iconography and makes use of it to admirable effect in The Apple Pushers, her recent film about an initiative to increase the number of fruit and vegetable carts in New York City.

And that's a good thing, because the primary story -- a city health department project ramps up the number of produce vendor permits in an effort to bring more produce to underserved areas -- might otherwise fall flat. Early passages of the film are thick with shots of plump American bellies making their way around New York and fast food joints, interspersed with dire numbers of our obesity crisis. In less capable hands, do-gooder impulses and policy wonkery could have easily overshadowed the rich narrative inherent in the true subject of Mazzio's film: the peddlers. They take center stage, and the obesity crisis is allowed to fade into the background.

Emotionally, the film packs a wallop; we hear Sarahi's story of walking through sewers before climbing the border fence; we hear Jake's mother welcoming him back after a tour of duty.

With the help of narration by actor Edward Norton, we become close to five of them. There's Jake, a young Iraq War vet (and Brooklynite by way of Russia), who's selling organic produce at the Staten Island Ferry terminal, and Sarahi, who came to the U.S. from Mexico at age 15 and now sells produce in the Bronx. Hassan, from Bangladesh, dreamt of a career as a cricket player ("My father says, 'A doctor is a very good profession.' I said, 'I like cricket.') but his father insisted he go to America to help support his family.

As interesting as the personal stories are, the most involving subjects are the ones who, by film's end, are not just making a living with their carts but seem to be building them into the first rung of a career ladder. Bardo (Mexico/Bronx), Shaheen (Bangladesh/Bronx), and Gloria (Ecuador/Queens) share their personal tales, too, but are clearly crafting careers for themselves. Bardo and Shaheen have both hired staff to keep their carts bustling, and Gloria drives hard bargains with the produce distributor who delivers to her, curbside.

Emphasizing the people pushing the carts, rather than the people who pushed for adding them to the city's landscape under "Green Carts" legislation, is a smart move. (The film's executive producer, Laurie Tisch, helped to launch the Green Cart program with financial support from her Illumination Fund, which has continued to support Green Cart by paying for wireless terminals that allow vendors to take Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cards.) Emotionally, the film packs a wallop; we hear Sarahi's story of walking through sewer tunnels before climbing -- and getting stuck on -- the border fence, saved by a friend who doubled back to help her; we hear Jake's mother describe welcoming him back after his tour of duty. These stories, and those of the others, draw a parallel between these peddlers' stories of immigrating to the U.S. from the bustle of today's developing world and the tales of immigrants flooding New York from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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Tracie McMillan is a freelance journalist whose work focuses on the issue of access to good food, particularly within middle- and lower-income communities. Her first book, The American Way of Eating, examines food and class in America.

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