On Food Deserts and Obesity: Q&A With Documentary Filmmaker Mary Mazzio

| February 27, 2012 4:00 AM video

A green cart vendor sells grapes. "The Apple Pushers" documentary examines how fresh produce helps to combat obesity in low income, urban communities. Photo courtesy of 50 Eggs Films.

A new documentary film, “The Apple Pushers,” aims to bring attention to the ongoing problem of obesity in low income communities, and looks at how immigrant produce vendors are helping to tackle the problem. Filmmaker Mary Mazzio spoke with MetroFocus via email about New York City’s Green Cart Program and what she learned from telling immigrant stories.

Q: Where did the idea for “The Apple Pushers” come from? What inspired you to make it?

A: After we screened a prior film, “TEN9EIGHT” (about inner city teenage entrepreneurs), at The Aspen Ideas Festival, Laurie Tisch (co-owner of the Giants and the head of the Illumination Fund) said “I need to talk to you.” She described the work that she was doing in New York City with Mayor Mike Bloomberg and the problem of ‘food deserts’ (low-income areas where residents have little access to fresh fruits and vegetables, contributing to the alarming obesity rates that are skyrocketing throughout the country.)

Laurie’s foundation, which has a public-private partnership with the City of New York, started to support a new initiative to populate low-income areas with fresh produce. Under newly enacted legislation, the Green Cart Program provides special street vending permits to vendors who would sell only fruits and vegetables — and only in these “food desert” locations. Laurie had the idea to create a documentary film focusing on the food desert problem — through the lens of these street vendors.

Q: Why did you specifically choose to feature immigrants in this film?

A: Featuring immigrants was not intentional. When our pre-production team hit the streets in search of these fruit and vegetable vendors as part of our initial research, we found that almost every Green Cart vendor was a first generation immigrant. And when they began to share their stories, it became apparent that their journeys and their sacrifices should become part of the film. I was reminded that these immigrants had come to America for the same reasons that my own great grandparents had. They were here in search of a better life for their children and their children’s children.

Q: How did you choose the 5 vendors featured in this movie? What was so special about each of them?

A: Choosing the vendors to feature was very difficult. Each person we interviewed (upwards of 200 vendors) was worthy of his or her own documentary film. We wanted the vendors in the film to represent differing ethnicities, life experiences, religions and gender reflecting the diversity and vibrancy of the street culture of New York. What was so special about the five that we focus on — Jake (from Russia), Sarahi (from Mexico), Shaheen (from Bangladesh), Gloria (from Ecuador) and Bardo (from Mexico) — was that each gave up so much to come to this country, and notwithstanding the challenges each faced, they all embodied American can-do spirit and were optimistic about their futures. They were honest and blunt about their journeys to America and their lives as immigrants.

WATCH VIDEO:

“The Apple Pushers” tells the story of five immigrants, while looking at how fresh produce can help create healthier communities.

Q: Is there a particularly moving anecdote you can share with us about the characters in the film or the process of making the film?

A: One moving story was that of Bardo. He, like many immigrants, held down two jobs, working 24/7 in construction and stocking supermarket shelves. After a few years, Bardo had accumulated about $50,000 in savings. He invested this money in his first business (classically entrepreneurial), importing fresh produce from Mexico to the United States. However, the produce was not properly refrigerated and he lost nearly all of his savings. Closing down his business, Bardo then turned to street vending. He found a suitable location, set up his cart and soon thereafter, a neighboring store owner informed Bardo that he would need to pay $300 per month to “use the sidewalk.” Bardo paid the store-owner $300 per month for nearly 3 years (until he discovered there was no such obligation). In spite of the challenges and difficulties of life in America, Bardo, as a first generation immigrant, is and continues to be so optimistic about his future, and that of his children.

One of the funnier moments was when we happened upon Mohammed Ali — who called himself the “real Mohammed Ali.” He clearly had built a following in his neighborhood with his exuberant personality. When asked “Do you eat fast food and McDonald’s,” he laughed, responding: “No, I am too short and too fat.”

One of the more memorable off-camera production moments was when Jake’s father, Boris, a Russian immigrant, insisted that the entire film crew come to his home after the filming day ended.  We arrived en mass, greeted by Boris, his wife Eugenia, a pit bull and cold shots of Russian vodka.

Q: How did you get Edward Norton involved in the movie? Is he particularly interested in this subject?

A: One of the producers of the film, Tom Scott (founder of Nantucket Nectars) had worked with Edward and knew of his work with a variety of causes. Tom asked Edward if he might be interested, and luckily for us, Edward agreed to be involved.

Q: What is the best way to solve the “obesity epidemic” in New York City? Do you think local politicians are doing enough?

A: Mobile food carts are only one strategy. What is really interesting is that many cities are now using New York’s Green Cart Program as a model for ways to infuse their own low-income communities with fresh produce, often using a variety of mobile applications, whether it be street vendors or trucks or kiosks.

In New York City specifically, the NYC Department of Health has deployed several initiatives to create better access to healthy foods. However, solving the obesity epidemic in New York and beyond will require politicians, thought leaders, philanthropists and foundations  all coming together to creatively solve what is, as Sanjay Gupta said at a recent event hosted in Atlanta, a fixable problem.

Creating a healthier, less obese America will require dietary changes — less processed fatty foods and sugary drinks — and more exercise, which means access to both healthy eating options and places/spaces/facilities to be active. It will also require the intervention of many stake-holders to insure that our poorer citizens have access to healthy food.

“The Apple Pushers” will be screened at the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College on March 20 and will be hosted by Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito and President of Hunter College Jennifer Raab. Check back for details.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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