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

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


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.

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.

These "micro-entrepreneurs" did not hold back. They were brutally honest about their working conditions and the challenges they faced here in America.

But in spite of those difficulties, they were also becoming part of the fabric of the communities in which they worked. Gloria, for example, formed a co-op of other Ecuadorian women vendors to leverage wholesaler prices. She became quite close with the store owners on her street, supplying them with fresh Mexican vegetables. Bardo began sourcing organic vegetables from New Jersey to serve customer demand (which included restaurateurs). Shaheen struck up relationships at Hunts Point Terminal, one of the largest produce distributors on the East Coast, and was able to negotiate decent pricing, furthering his career as a distributor to several carts. I witnessed his interactions with the burly Italian wholesalers at Hunts Point. They teased him and clapped him on the back. And he smiled from ear to ear.

The concept of the film then evolved from food deserts to focus on these immigrants in search of the American Dream.

You might ask: Does it work? Are these vendors having an impact? Can mobile vending be an effective strategy to increase access to healthy foods?

The answer is yes. Mobile food carts are not part of a government funded program. This is free enterprise and capitalism. If only one cart succeeds, there will be produce in a particular neighborhood for a long time. According to a few distributors, several vendors are buying quantities of produce similar to that of restaurants. As such, meaningful amounts of fruits and vegetables are being sold to low-income neighborhood residents, especially by vendors who accept EBT (food stamp) cards. And there have been calls to create similar programs (and to show the film) in cities across the country where other municipalities are trying to figure out creative strategies to fight the obesity crisis.

Having finished our research, we shot the film, primarily on Super 16mm film, in 12 months thanks to a dedicated and talented team. Also during this time, the film was transferred and edited; the score composed (frame by frame); the narration written and then recorded; the color corrections infused (nearly 2,000 of them); the animation crafted; the graphics rendered; and the sound effects created. The film, 72 minutes in length, is now complete.

In November, we had the privilege of attending an event in Atlanta hosted by Arthur Blank (founder of the Home Depot and owner of the Atlanta Falcons) who convened an event after seeing the trailer for The Apple Pushers. I was thrilled to be asked to be part of a panel which consisted of CNN's chief medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, Dwayne Proctor from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Childhood Obesity Team, and Cathy Nonas from New York's Department of Health, discussing ways to eradicate food deserts.

What was so exciting about that event was that the audience started brainstorming right in front of our eyes. Community bankers stood up and said, "We are open for business for entrepreneurs looking to solve this problem." Legislators started huddling with policy leaders and food activists. This was the kind of vision that Laurie had for such a film at the outset. She understood the power that a story could have in terms of inspiring others to action.

On January 11, the USDA hosted a special screening of The Apple Pushers in Washington, D.C., for policy leaders, heads of federal agencies, and others who are in a position to help spread the message of the film -- which is to think creatively about pushing back the borders of these food deserts. The room lit up after the screening, with agency and association heads wanting to bring the film back to their thousands of constituents -- to inspire them to action.

As Sanjay Gupta said in Atlanta, this is one problem that can be fixed. And if this film can inspire those in a position to fix it, well, that was the whole point.

Image: The Apple Pushers/50 Eggs.

The trailer, a calendar of upcoming screenings in major cities, and more information is available here.