Pushing Back the Confines of Food Deserts

Davidson had the privilege of hosting Mary Mazzio, director of the documentary The Apple Pushers (2011), on campus in January. The Apple Pushers is a film about immigrant street vendors in New York City and touches on sensitive issues like immigration, the obesity crisis, and food access. In a conversation with Mazzio, a group of Davidson students explored the intricate connection between food justice and immigration. In the film, all the immigrant street vendors are enrolled in New York City’s innovative Green Cart Program, which was created in 2008 to offer people in less affluent neighborhoods access to healthy and fresh produce. The purpose of the carts is not to serve as a place to grocery shop, but rather as a location to grab healthy snacks on the go.  Prior to the Green Cart program, the only cheap and convenient options for a quick snack were hot-dog and pretzel carts or fast food chains. Although some people argue that these options do provide access to food, there is a distinct difference between having food access and having access to good food. On a very basic level, it is usually easy to determine the difference healthy and unhealthy foods; however, even among healthy foods, there are a host of other factors that should be considered in determining the quality of the food. For example, there are many possible differences between an apple picked off a shelf in a Food Lion versus one selected from a farmer’s market: whether pesticides or fertilizers were used in the growing process, the number of miles the produce traveled to the retailer, and the number of days it’s been since the apple was picked. Given the lack of food source labeling, the average consumer doesn’t have such information when selecting most food and certainly not fruits or vegetables.

Why is healthy food so hard to find in many poorer communities? Research has shown that residents in low-income, inner-city neighborhoods have poor access to large supermarkets and pay a much higher cost to shop in small local convenience stores. Supermarkets require a large footprint for their retail stores and parking lots and remain primarily a suburban convenience for a clientele that travels by car and buys in bulk. Urban residents typically do not own a car and or have space to store large quantities of food, making cities a less lucrative market for supermarket chains. So instead, city dwellers tend to shop at to privately owned neighborhood grocery stores within walking distance of their homes. Supermarket chains receive massive discounts for buying produce and other food items in bulk. Small local markets cannot compete on price or food selection with the retail giants forcing consumers to pay considerably more for food. As a result, many inner-city low-income residents turn to low cost fast-food establishments, which offer high calorie, low nutrition selections. The lack of healthy food options is creating a host of health problems including obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, and consequently the U.S. is spending immense sums of money on medical conditions related to poor diets.

In 2008, The illumination Fund and the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene launched The Green Carts program with the hope of lowering diet-related diseases in the future.  The program has done much more than just promote healthy eating; it also offers entrepreneurial opportunities for immigrants. The documentary follows the lives of five immigrants in their struggle and determination to create a better life. The Green Cart program has given immigrants the opportunity to gain a foothold into this country by pushing back the borders of food deserts. These immigrant cart owners are reaching into the poorest neighborhoods of New York, which are currently replete with fast food establishments. The areas are often referred to as “food swamps,” because they are toxic food environments. Immigrants in the United States have always faced many challenges, but instead of accepting defeat, many immigrants, like the ones in this documentary, see opportunity in America’s challenges and have become part of the solution.

According to the Illumination Fund’s website, a funder of the program, the initiative has been a major success. The website estimates that the program has created over 900 jobs, has increased the consumption of healthy eating, and has inspired other cities to follow New York’s lead. Although the program has provided communities with many benefits, there is controversy surrounding the program. Mazzio highlighted some of the program’s problems and areas that need improvement. Owning a cart in NYC is no easy feat and Mazzio outlined the serious adversities cart owners face. Many vendors have to push their carts several blocks without any help and operate in unpredictable and harsh weather conditions. Although cart vendors are not required to pay rent, there is a lot of competition among vendors and finding a place to vend is extremely challenging. There are also strict rules governing carts with hefty fines for violations. Many storeowners claim that street vendors have unfair advantages because they take up sidewalk space and successfully compete for their business. An important outcome of the program is that it has been very successful raising awareness of serious issues surrounding the current food system.

Mazzio believes that one of the largest deficiencies with the United State’s food system is that there are no subsidies for produce. Currently, the government provides billions of dollars each year to growers of commodity crops, such as corn or corn-fed meats. Corn is in a wide variety of highly processed unhealthy foods, and subsidies make it so these foods are cheaper than fruits and vegetables. When a student asked Mazzio what the one thing people could do to remedy this problem of food access, her advice was to lobby for subsidies on produce. Obesity and eliminating nutrient starvation cannot occur until healthy foods become cheaper than fast food.

Providing people access to quality food is not enough. Many people want to eat healthy, but they do not have the knowledge or skills to prepare healthy meals. I experienced this problem first hand during my internship with the Davidson Farmer’s Market. Following a market day, the market manager and I distributed donated produce to a lower class, predominately black neighborhood only five minutes away from our market site. The community members were overjoyed, but towards the end of our rounds, we had boxes and boxes of eggplant left. When we offered the residents the eggplant, they indicated that they were not sure how to cook it and therefore didn’t want it. Educating individuals about how to prepare healthy foods is equally as important as providing them with the food. Education is the key in long-term and sustainable change in eating habits.


Stephanie Piperno ’15