Spring has sprung and we’re coming up on nearly a full year of our Grow Pittsburgh’s Grower’s Spotlight! Our March feature marks the ninth installment of the series and we hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know some of the amazing local growers over the past year with us. Today we meet Carlos Gasca Yanez, the Office Administrator and Food Pantry Coordinator at Wilkinsburg Community Ministry (WCM). Founded in 1968, WCM

was originally made up of 22 local church congregations who worked to address hunger and poverty within the community. Over the years, WCM has provided a multitude of services, including a school food program, Meals on Wheels, a variety of social programs, and a food pantry. In 2020, the organization streamlined its operations to focus solely on the food pantry. As the Pantry Coordinator, Carlos has created innovative ways to meet the needs of the Wilkinsburg community, particularly in the past year of COVID-19. Not wanting to be dependent on outside food sources in those early, uncertain days of the pandemic, he looked to the number of vacant lots and existing gardens within the borough that could be grown on to supply the pantry, demonstrating the function of urban gardening as community aid in times of crisis. Learn more about Carlos’ experiences below and join WCM as a volunteer this season as they continue their garden-to-pantry initiatives!

GP: How many garden sites did you garden at across the borough and how much food did you grow for distribution in 2020?

Carlos: As I began to understand the impact of COVID-19 on international shipping and panic buying, I realized that we would need to have a food source that could patch us through some scarcity. I asked my neighbor Kate if we could use her garden (pictured below), as she had not been able to garden the site for several years.  She agreed, and we planted seedlings there immediately. 

Once schools went remote, Grow Pittsburgh’s Learning Garden at Kelly Elementary also became available to us. We mostly harvested what was already planted there: kale, eggplants, herbs and peppers. Hamnett Place Community Garden also contributed a portion of their harvest as did the Environmental Charter School garden and Penn Hills Community Garden. While we did not weigh our harvest’s or donations we know that at least 30 days of local fresh produce were supplied to our pantry from local gardens.

GP: How did COVID affect WCM’s work?

Carlos: Our food pantry saw a dramatic increase in food distribution. At the end of 2019 we were sharing food with an average of 200 households a month. By late March 2020, it became 200 households each week. As programs like SNAP and unemployment benefits have begun to catch up with the need, demand has slightly diminished, but the cost of some foods has risen dramatically.

GP: What is your background in growing food?

Carlos: When I was 10, I asked my dad for a job at the hotel he was managing. He placed me with the gardener from whom I learned how to plant and weed the flower bed. After graduating from high school, I moved to Canada and enjoyed gardening on a one-acre family homestead. During the summer months, we ate much of what we grew fresh, and come winter, if it kept us inside, we knew we would have food, either frozen or as preserves. I used that experience to set up a culinary herbs business. I built a small greenhouse where I grew plants from cuttings and sold them at a local indoor market.

GP: What’s your favorite thing to grow?

Carlos: Heirloom tomatoes and herbs. Heirloom tomatoes offer great flavors and surprising colors and shapes. Herbs are always fun to share with others because of their lovely scents.

GP: What, if any issues, do you encounter growing on vacant lots in Wilkinsburg?

Carlos: The most significant issue for us is property control. In many instances it is not easy to track down the owner of a lot we may want to use for growing. There are also many deer, who help themselves to a share of the produce. Another issue is soil contamination. We’ve address this using aquaponics and raised beds, wherein we isolate the existing soil by placing a layer of cardboard down and covering it with mulch.

GP:  What kind of reception have you gotten from the neighbors nearby the gardens?

Carlos: Cultivating positive relationships with the neighbors was very important. Fortunately for us, we’re there to share food with the community so that makes building those relationships pretty easy. 

Many neighbors have enjoyed supporting us out in the gardens too. Last season at Kate’s Garden, we had a small but mighty group of volunteers who helped with everything from planting to caring for a lion’s mane mushroom log. This season I am looking forward to working with some residents that visit the pantry to set up a “live food pantry” on their block that can tend to and access whenever. If everything works according to plan, we’ll have some vegetables, herbs and, possibly, quail.

Know another local grower you’d like to see in the Growers Spotlight? Maybe it’s you! Drop us a line to be featured in our next newsletter or on our blog.