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.
At the screening in New York, a panel of experts and program staffers fielded questions from the audience, including the inevitable "Is anyone planning to assess the health benefits, and how long will it take?" Program data is still being crunched, said Bonnie Kerker from the city's department of health and mental hygiene, which helped inaugurate the project, but preliminary data indicate that availability of produce "seemed to increase in Green Cart areas, more so than in non-Green Cart areas." Later in the discussion, after running through a laundry list of the city's other food-access initiatives, Kerker added, "I also think we would be mistaken to try to pin our outcomes on one initiative -- we really need to look at the full picture." That picture will include the several other cities, says Illumination Fund Executive Director Rick Luftglass, that are developing their own produce cart programs.