When they announced their separation in September after 16 years of marriage, Arthur and Stephanie Blank assured the public they would continue working together on their shared philanthropic and community-building commitments. True to their word, the Home Depot co-founder and Atlanta Falcons owner and family were seated in the front row together Wednesday night at the Arthur M. Blank Family Office in Buckhead as they hosted “Street Food: Attacking Obesity & Wiping Out Food Deserts One City Block at a Time.”
Inside the packed ornate room, CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta moderated a 90-minute panel discussion streaming live on the non-profit’s website and updates scrolling on Twitter. Introducing the evening’s discussion was New York Giants co-owner Laurie M. Tisch, the president of the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund. Tisch recently initiated and underwrote the financing for “The Apple Pushers,” a fascinating new documentary by Mary Mazzio chronicling five immigrant pushcart vendors in NYC as they bring fresh fruits and vegetables to grocery store-less food deserts in the city. Joining Mazzio and Gupta on the panel were Cathy Nonas, NYC’s Department of Health’s physical activity and nutrition director and Dr. Dwayne Proctor, the director of the childhood obesity program at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Noting the alarming differences in NYC’s neighborhoods with easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables and the ones choked with fast-food chicken emporiums, Tisch told the crowd: “In East Harlem, 13 percent of the population has diabetes compared to three-percent of the population in the Upper East Side a few blocks away. That’s a huge disparity.” In addition to financing “The Apple Pushers,” Tisch’s non-profit has also created “The NYC Green Cart Cookbook,” a recipe guide including offerings from celeb chefs, including Alice Waters and Tom Colicchio, side by side those from immigrant street cart vendors. The books are distributed free at many of the city’s 516 Green Cart veggie vendors. “You can’t just put the fruits and vegetables out there,” Tisch explained. “You can’t just expect people to automatically say, ‘Cauliflower, yes!‘”
Gupta told the assembled and web viewers: “I care so deeply about this issue. I travel all over the world and see a lot of problems that aren’t fixable. The topic tonight is fixable. We used to be the envy of the world. We were fit and healthy. Now, with climbing obesity rates, we’re not. We’ve got to reserve that.” During the shooting of “The Apple Pushers,” Mazzio conceded that even finding a nutritious lunch for her crew was an ongoing challenge in one of the world’s largest cities. “There was a McDonald’s and then another McDonald’s and then 17 chicken places,” she recalled. “Trying to find an apple was difficult. If you live in these neighborhoods, you need to take a bus and two trolleys to the nearest supermarket and then lug everything back home. Or you can go to the McDonald’s down the street and know your kid will be full.”
Helping to eliminate the food desert in Atlanta’s Castleberry Hill neighborhood is Alison Cross, who just opened The Boxcar Grocer with her brother Alphonzo Cross at 249 Peters Street. It took the siblings two years to get the doors open in the grocery store-impaired part of the city. “Neither of us has a food background,” she explained. “We’re not foodies. We were just responding to a need in a food desert.” The neighbors are already flocking in, she said. “People are clamoring for our kale salad in our cooler. We can’t keep it in stock!”
Even as permits and licensing headaches await a possible green cart initiative in Atlanta, Stephanie Blank explained that families can make a difference. “Kids learn by example,” Blank told Atlanta magazine after the panel discussion. “They watch what mom and dad eat and how much they exercise. They learn by watching us. And my kids will tell you when they go grocery shopping with Mom, there’s no Doritos, there’s no Oreos or anything like that in the cart. We try and always stress to them, ‘You are what you eat.’ In our house, we call them ‘growing foods.’ It’s a message we started early and we also talk about having those different colors on the plate and what those foods represent. We try to live that lifestyle so our kids will be as healthy as possible.”
As for the “Street Food” panel discussion take away, Blank said: “I want people to know there are solutions out there and if we can get together, there are things we can do to improve conditions. Whether it’s through the schools and bringing farmer’s markets into the schools or whether it’s getting a grocery store open in one of these food deserts, we can bring about positive and lasting change.”