Wooden boxes stocked with food, supplies placed in Wilkinsburg to aid underserved residents
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A wooden box stands at the corner of Wilkinsburg’s Laketon Road and Douglas Drive.
Behind a purple door adorned with the expression “Explore your full potential” are shelves stocked with everything from nonperishables such as boxed macaroni and cheese, long-grain rice and canned corn to jars of baby food, socks and women’s sanitary products.
But the box is about more than the sum of its contents.
“Wilkinsburg is a food desert, I’m not sure if people know that,” said Brittany McBryde, who grew up in town and now helps provide social services through Wilkinsburg police. “Something like this makes all the difference.”
Wilkinsburg officials, including Mayor Dontae Comans, police leadership and a dozen public works employees clad in neon-yellow shirts or vests, gathered on Laketon Road Wednesday morning to unveil one of the 20 new wooden boxes providing underserved residents with food and necessary supplies.
Boxes are located where access to groceries is scarce, including at Whitney Park, along Pitt Street and at the intersection of Swissvale and Glenn avenues, officials said. The boxes were inspired by “little free libraries,” the pint-sized wooden boxes installed on lawns and near sidewalks where book lovers can grab something to read.
The covid-19 pandemic devastated this corner of Wilkinsburg, which borders Churchill’s Blackridge neighborhood, McBryde said.
A Family Dollar store near Turner Intermediate School that had a frozen-food section recently closed. So did a corner store near Montour Street, where borough residents could grab milk or a loaf of bread.
“A lot of resources have closed permanently,” said McBryde, standing near the eight-story Douglas Plaza Apartments, where many elderly residents depend on buses or their feet to get around town. “This makes everyone feel good and this is what we need. We need more of this.”
Officials called the effort to build and install the boxes textbook collaboration.
Woodshop students from Westinghouse Academy designed the boxes, officials said. Art students from the school in nearby Homewood covered them in bright-colored paint and playful designs. And Wilkinsburg public works employees installed them.
Wilkinsburg students in grades 7 to 12 became eligible in 2015 to attend Pittsburgh Public Schools. Westinghouse Academy is their feeder school.
Wilkinsburg Councilwoman Linda Atkins told reporters she’s extremely excited by the project.
“We keep hearing this word: collaboration,” Atkins said. “That’s such an important word as we bring Wilkinsburg forward.”
Comans said the new boxes will address a population that’s hesitant to call attention to itself.
“There are a lot of people afraid to come and say, ‘I need a bit to eat tonight,’” he said.
Four Westinghouse Academy students who helped build the boxes also attended the unveiling Wednesday.
“This was a different experience for me,” said Monte Wells, 15, of Wilkinsburg, who’s entering his sophomore year at Westinghouse Academy. “It was an activity for me to see things in motion.”
The idea for the boxes has been percolating within the Wilkinsburg Police Department and borough government for a while, officials said.
Mary Buckley is celebrating her first anniversary as the police force’s director of social services.
“We really believe it takes a village to raise a community,” Buckley told reporters. “We had an idea. And the idea has now come alive … we are grateful.”
Justin Vellucci is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Justin at [email protected].
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