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Getting Fresh

They call it the Big Apple, but in some parts of town, finding fresh produce is a tough row to hoe. A new documentary, produced by TC Board Vice Chair Laurie Tisch, highlights a solution
They call it the Big Apple, but in some parts of town, finding fresh produce is a tough row to hoe. A new documentary, produced by TC Board Vice Chair Laurie Tisch, highlights a solution

By Siddhartha Mitter

It’s just after dawn, and around New York City, five recent immigrants are hauling carts out from darkened warehouses and loading them up with apples, bananas, peaches, grapes, string beans, broccoli and other produce. During the course of the day, they will appear in neighborhoods across the city, bargaining with wholesalers at the Hunts Point food distribution center in the Bronx, waving down tired commuters exiting the ferry in Staten Island, and above all, selling their wares in the city’s “food deserts”-- parts of town where fresh fruits and vegetables are otherwise not to be found, and where, partly as a result (many experts believe) obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol are endemic. 

So begins “The Apple Pushers,” a new documentary directed by Mary Mazzio and narrated by Edward Norton, about New York City’s Green Cart Program, which since 2008 has deployed 500 produce vendors into low-income, food-desert areas in all five boroughs, with another 500 planned. Vendors get priority access to operating licenses, and business guidance and other support from the city’s private partners. And because most vendors are immigrants, the program contributes to their attainment of the American Dream.

The film, which was screened at TC’s Milbank in late June to a capacity crowd of health and nutrition students and public health officials from around New York City, has a number of connections to the College. For starters, its executive producer is Laurie M. Tisch, Vice Chair of TC’s Board of Trustees. A noted philanthropist with a focus on urban issues, Tisch is a partner in the Green Cart initiative: the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund provided the program’s $1.5 million seed money, and makes grants to community-based organizations to help recruit vendors and provide them with business education and support.

“Laurie Tisch felt the Green Cart initiative was so unique that it was important to document it and learn from it,” said Rick Luftglass, the Fund’s executive director, after the screening. Indeed, the program has attracted interest in other cities, including Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., which have launched pilots of similar projects.

“The Apple Pushers” also speaks directly to the agenda of TC’s Nutrition Education program and its Center for Food and Environment, which conducts research on how people make decisions about food and works with schools and communities to support better and healthier choices.

“For healthy food choices to become the easy choices—the new norm— requires a synergy between food access and education,” said Pamela Koch, the Center’s Executive Director. “Green Carts use the all-American business model to do something that by design is giving people healthy foods, in areas that we know are challenging ones to get these foods.”

Koch said the stories of the immigrant vendors portrayed in the film showed both the promise and the difficulty of bringing about such change. Even with city and private support, the vendors faced multiple challenges, from red tape to getting along with local businesses. Still, four of the five have stuck with the program, built a robust customer base and expanded their operations.

“It shows that we can have programs that create an all-around win, for health, job creation, and showing people how to use these foods,” Koch said. “It’s not always going to be successful, but it’s worth the work.”

Published Thursday, Jun. 21, 2012


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