Solving the Food Crisis: An Interview with ‘Apple Pushers’ Filmmaker Mary Mazzio

A film about entrepreneurial solutions to social issues.

The statistics surrounding the state of public health in the United States are overwhelming. Today, 72.5 million Americans are obese, resulting in $146 billion dollars per year in obesity-related costs. That number is estimated to jump to $343 billion by 2020.

This is how the documentary film Apple Pushers begins, with a strident reminder of the food and health crisis we’re currently in. We live in a country where the disparity between communities that have access to fresh food and those that don’t is shocking. In fact, 23.5 million Americans don’t have a supermarket within one mile of their home, putting these Americans in the heart of food deserts, and while convenience stores and fast food may abound, getting healthy and affordable food is difficult and inconvenient.

In response to food deserts in New York City, in 2008 the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund gave a $1.5 million grant to launch the Green Carts initiative, creating 1,000 permits for green carts, mobile food carts that sell raw fruits and vegetables. The grant funded micro-loans and technical assistance for Green Cart operators to ensure that low-income communities would have the access to healthy food they so desperately need.

The story of the Green Carts initiative and its positive effects is the subject of documentary film, Apple Pushers, screening online April 22-30 as a part of Whole Foods’ online documentary film festival Do Something Reel, featuring a variety of documentaries on food and environmental issues.

First approached by Laurie Tisch, filmmaker Mary Mazzio launched herself into telling the story of four immigrants positively impacted by the initiative, all starting their own mobile food cart businesses, and the effects that this kind of philanthropic effort can have. In the process, she was immersed in the world of food politics and the importance of access as it relates to healthier communities.

“When these low income residents can use their food stamp cards, demand skyrockets, whether it’s farmers markets or pushcarts… [it]has to be a price point that makes sense. Low income communities want access to food too,” says Mazzio.

Providing access to good food might seem like a no-brainer, but watch the film and you soon learn that getting Green Carts launched was not a path without obstacles. A contentious issue when it came to City Council, politicians were concerned about the effects on local business that such a model would have, contending that mobile food carts would pull consumers away from local establishments. In the film, we see the heated debate that ensues. “I waded through all the 100s of pages of testimony… what was really interesting was, yet another universal concept, whether you have a 2×4 cart or you’re Walmart, people go ballistic because it means change,” says Mazzio.

But the launching of a program that would support mobile food carts wasn’t just an economic question. “What did surprise me were some of the arguments, like ‘those people don’t eat fruits and vegetables.’ I think that is a misguided notion of how you look at the issue. That’s like saying ‘oh, those people don’t have checking accounts’ Well guess what, where are the banks? It’s an issue of red line food districts,” says Mazzio.

Put good food into these places and people will buy it. “Low income communities want access to food, too,” says Mazzio. (That this should even be a matter of debate says much about our current cultural climate.) When we’re talking about public health and eating habits, we have to start with infrastructure and equality.

And the stakes are high. As Mazzio points out, obesity alone “is a problem that could bankrupt our children if we don’t keep it in check. It’s going to overshadow almost every other problem we have financially. Really? This is a problem we can fix.”

And that’s where the idea of mobile markets comes into play. From mobile grocery stores in Nashville to a mobile supermarket in New Mexico to a $25,000 grant to fund a mobile farmers markets in Houston, initiatives similar to Green Carts are popping up around the country, providing a grassroots solution to an overwhelming problem. Beyond providing access to good food, as they are “rooted in micro entrepreneurship” as Mazzio says, these programs are also economically empowering.

For Mazzio, if we’re going to solve the obesity crisis we need more programs like this. Not just government subsidies, but the kind of micro loans and programs that bring long lasting returns. Ultimately, programs like Green Carts are “entrepreneurial solutions to social issues,” says Mazzio. Because when it comes to food, we all need to eat, and we all deserve the access to the food that is good for us.

“This is basic human rights. That’s kind of overstating it, but this is food justice,” says Mazzio.

“The Apple Pushers” theatrical trailer from Paul Gattuso on Vimeo.

Do Something Reel festival opens April 22, with a live screening of “The Apple Pushers,” followed by a panel discussion with the film’s writer and director, Mary Mazzio; executive producer, Laurie Tisch; and celebrity chef, food policy advocate and founder of Wholesome Wave, Michel Nischan. The event will take place at Alamo Drafthouse’s Slaughter Lane Theater in Whole Foods Market’s hometown of Austin. Additionally, theaters in Boston, Detroit, Pittsburgh and San Francisco will host simultaneous screenings and will stream the panel discussion. For more information click here. To learn more about Apple Pushers visit the film’s website

Image: Apple Pushers

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.