Sal Wilcox, 31, was born in El Salvador and adopted by a Chambersburg-area family at age 9. From his Highland Park home, Wilcox is the volunteer head of Education Innovations, a nonprofit planting a "NatureLAB Community" garden on Fifth Avenue, Uptown, to help the neighborhood feed itself (as well as patrons of the Jubilee Kitchen next door). Education Innovations, whose board includes several adjunct professors at Wilcox's alma mater, Duquesne University, is also planning a city charter school.
How are the gardens coming?
We've built six raised-bed gardens adjacent to Jubilee Kitchen. We plan to build six more. We plan on putting up greenhouses on the Jubilee site this fall. In an area [nearby] we hope to be planting a pumpkin patch in the next few weeks. We hope to plant some corn as well, just to say, "Hey, we're here," with the hope of fully planting it next summer.
People might imagine Jubilee Kitchen patrons grateful to have any sort of meal, let alone fresh vegetables.
Just because you're hungry doesn't mean you have to take what's offered. You don't lose your sense of choice. "Don't give a homeless person money -- they might go out and buy a beer." Well, sometimes I want to go out and buy a beer too. Just because you're poor doesn't mean you don't want to eat healthy. If kids grow up eating vegetables, they'll want to eat healthy as adults.
But the garden is also for local residents.
If we use it for the sake of the community, the community will have a more vested interest in what happens to it. Let's come in and do something with the land and then [people] won't want to throw garbage over the fence and litter all over the sidewalk. Also, we want to use gardening to teach science to neighborhood kids. That site has been used for community gardens before. But the idea that there can be science learning behind it is new.
What happened to the previous gardens?
Basically, longevity wasn't built into the whole idea. Anywhere you're trying to green empty lots in the city, you have to build in sustainability. We want to take 10 youth from the neighborhood and put them through an entrepreneurial program [to learn to] market the food grown on the space. We also want to open up a bistro, a small patio where you can order a soy dog or a fresh salad and know it only traveled 50 feet. We also hope to work with some chefs locally where we can use the produce we grow to market some products, say a salsa or chili sauce, more locally grown than within the county -- it's within the city.
Where did you get the idea for the school?
My brothers and sisters, two of them were adopted with me. I have five brothers and sisters in El Salvador. My older sister [has] no indoor plumbing, electricity for part of the day. No car. There was no middle school or high school. Here I am, having the ability to do what I damn well please. My brothers and sisters in El Salvador, they're not any dumber or smarter than I am, yet they aren't able to do what they want. They spend so much time during the day doing what we take for granted -- my sister has to get up at 5 in the morning and go down to the river to wash her clothes. It's the same disparity between a school in the Hill District and a school in Shadyside. So I see it as a matter of opportunity. What I don't see [in Pittsburgh] is a real plan to concentrate educational resources to the people who need it the most. And that's our motivation for the charter school.