by Bruce Boyers
Several years ago, Mary Mazzio came to a crossroads in her life. Down one course her education would take her, as anattorney, into politics; down another, she could become a filmmaker. She ended up choosing the latter and could not be happier about the decision. “I’m so glad that I took this path,” Mazzio told Calmful Living. “You could only dream that you could create content that would actually motivate or inspire people. We’ve seen that happen time and time again, and there’s nothing more humbling or rewarding.”
Mazzio has produced a number of award-winning documentaries, including TEN9EIGHT, Lemonade Stories, Apple Pie, A Hero for Daisy, and We Are BlackRock. Her latest effort, entitled The Apple Pushers, follows the lives of five immigrants who have taken up the vocation of operating street produce carts in New York City. It is an insightful look into the drive of free enterprise, and the incredibly simple solution of bringing fresh produce into neighborhoods that would not otherwise see it. The documentary, narrated by Academy Award–nominated actor Edward Norton, has garnered overwhelming response and demand for screenings.
The Apple Pushers actually had its genesis in the screening of one of Mazzio’s earlier films. “I met this fabulous woman named Laurie Tisch, who co-owns the New York Giants with her brothers,” Mazzio related. “Laurie does an incredible amount of philanthropy, and about four or five years ago she started a new foundation through which she is addressing three core issues, one of which is food justice. She saw a film that I made called TEN9EIGHT, all about inner-city entrepreneurs.
“After the screening she came up and said, ‘I’m working on this really interesting problem in New York. I think it’s worth being documented.’ She asked me, ‘You know what a food desert is?’ And I was like, ‘Um . . . ,’ sort of scratching my head. She explained the skyrocketing rates of obesity in these particular neighborhoods from the lack of the availability of fresh food. For me it was an aha moment, particularly when I recalled driving around the Bronx, Bed-Stuy and Brooklyn. Of course people see the same things in their own communities, like Detroit, Boston or the south side of Chicago, or even rural areas. Where are the healthy eating options that are proximate? And the answer: none.
“So Laurie said, ‘Come to New York; see what you think.’ I was blown away by the depth of the problem, and also blown away by how fixable it was. At the time, New York was implementing its Green Cart Program, trying to find low-cost ways to infuse these areas with fruits and vegetables.”
The 5 street-cart vendors focused on in The Apple Pushers—who were all taking advantage of New York’s Green Cart Program—were chosen from over 200 possibilities. “It was so hard,” Mazzio recalled. “Our street team interviewed upwards of 200. We scoured the city looking for these guys. We went from about 200 to 100 to 50 to 35, and then getting down from the last 10 was really difficult.
“Each one of these street-cart vendors (or micro-entrepreneurs, really) was worthy of his or her own story. The tales of coming to America—they’re universal; it’s the human condition. You would aspire to maybe not have a better life for yourself, but a better life for your children and your grandchildren. To see that in action I had to ask myself, would I be that selfless? These people are in the street working twenty-four-seven, in rain, wind and snow, so their children can be educated here.”
Mary has lovingly crafted the stories of these five, from their beginnings in their countries of origin, then into and through their trials and tribulations as street produce vendors. There is Jake, who emigrated with his parents from Russia as a child, his parents fleeing an intensely anti-Semitic climate. Bardo came from Guerrero, Mexico, and at age 15 walked through the desert into the United States, encouraged by his mother to “be somebody.” Gloria made the agonizing decision to leave her two children behind in her native Ecuador, in an effort to make a better life for them and bring them here. Shaheen reluctantly came from Bangladesh, at the urging of his father, on a one-way ticket and with only $200 in his pocket. And Sarahi, at age 15, nearly didn’t make it into the US due to the dangerous trip across the border, and arrived deeply in debt to the “coyotes” whom she’d paid to bring her across. All of these wonderful people are now legal—and highly contributive—US citizens.
The vendors must each carve out a niche for themselves, deal with brick-and-mortar stores that would rather they weren’t there, tangle with complex regulations, and even handle weather issues—all while forging relationships with neighborhoods, customers and suppliers that will ensure they make a living and benefit the public.
Response and Positive Change
Response to the film—having been in release for only a few months—has been nothing short of spectacular. “We had a screening two weeks ago that the Deputy Secretary of the USDA hosted in Washington; the room was full of people from associations relating to pediatrics, dietetics, nutrition, obesity—you name it—and the place lit up afterwards,” Mazzio recalled. “We watched the same thing happen in Atlanta just a little later, where Arthur Blank—he owns the Falcons and started Home Depot—is focusing on food desert issues in Atlanta. We saw the film catalyze this great discussion. A banker threw her arm up in the air and said, ‘I work for Community Bank. We just got money from the feds. We can help solve this problem. Any nonprofit or any entrepreneur that has a legitimate business plan, come see me.’ A legislator threw his hand in the air, saying, ‘I can help on the permitting end.’ And then the food bank head jumped up and said, ‘Oh! I have X pounds of produce!’ We’re seeing how the film can really help communities think creatively about this.
“There have been many other types of responses as well that were great. We had a very prominent chef e-mail in, saying, ‘I want to source all my vegetables now from these green-cart vendors.’ And journalists call in and say, ‘Oh, by God! I live in New York and I’m going to start buying all my veggies from my local vendor!”
The Apple Pushers is currently being screened at events all over the country—check the film’s website (link below) for details. You can also add your name to a waiting list for the DVD, which won’t be long in coming.
“It’s fantastic to have a piece of content that can get policymakers excited and interested,” Mazzio concluded. “The fact that I can put out a narrative that excites people is really the power of film. It’s the visual crafting of a message.”
For more on this documentary and showings in your area, visit www.applepushers.com.
To preorder the DVD or request a showing in your area, click on the “Order Film” link from the front page of the site.