The distribution of fresh produce by food pantries is a development that started slowly in the late 1980s but has gained momentum in recent years. Several things had to align to drive this development: a better understanding of the importance of a nutritious diet in combating a number of health challenges faced by residents of low-income and food-insecure communities — obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, to name a few; improved methods, like refrigerated trucks, for storing fresh produce; and more large scale as well as local food growers stepping up to provide produce that might otherwise go to waste. In St. Louis, Missouri, a 16-year-old high school student by the name of Sophie Bernstein is a local food grower who’s stepped up. An athlete and avid gardener, she is committed to improving the nutrition and fitness level of low-income preschoolers in her community.
Bernstein has always had a passion for gardening. At a very young age, she started growing food in her backyard and taking the excess produce to the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry. On one visit, she decided to tour the facility and realized that there was little in the way of fresh produce available for its clients — “People don’t donate that,” she was told when she asked why. So, Bernstein decided she’d use her love of gardening to meet this need. With the money from her bat mitzvah and the help of some Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, friends and members of her synagogue, she built a garden at Ferguson Day Care. In 2013, Bernstein launched Go Healthy St. Louis (STL), with an audacious goal: “to build, plant, maintain and grow healthy fresh vegetables at low-income preschools and shelters to donate fresh produce to area families in need and to provide more healthy fresh options to local area food banks.”
One garden at one preschool has blossomed into 22 gardens located at several preschools, a few elementary schools and a crisis nursery center in the St. Louis area. And, the initial group of volunteers has grown to some 750 teens who help her to build, maintain and harvest the produce. So far, Go Healthy STL has donated more than 9,500 pounds of produce to local food banks, in addition to teaching preschoolers about gardening and healthy eating and giving them hands-on opportunities to connect with nature and the food they eat.
During the winter months, Bernstein and her volunteers focus their efforts on food drives and fitness by holding running, swimming, soccer and other sports clinics for kids and activities like yoga for the community. “The Clayton (Missouri) Parks and Recreation Department has been awesome to work with,” Bernstein says. “They’ve offered us space — in the parks, on soccer fields, basketball court and even tennis courts — and equipment over the years for our free sports clinics for youth with autism. They have been extremely generous, welcoming and supportive, and we could not have done it without them.”
“They’ve become a regular part of our offerings,” says Patty Deforest, Clayton Parks and Recreation director. The programs Bernstein and her volunteers provide “certainly fits with the mission of what we do,” she continues, “which is to provide opportunities for everyone in the community.”
Bernstein, a huge fan of Twitter, relies heavily on social media to get the word out about Go Healthy STL. She also works closely with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, founded by the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation as a response to the growing rate of childhood obesity. As an Alliance All Star, Bernstein participated in seminars on topics like how to get people involved and how to find and apply for a variety of grants from other organizations, such as Youth Service America, Sodexo, generationOn, Katie’s Crops and Start A Snowball. The funds she obtains from these grants and through donations are used to buy the tools and resources needed to build, plant and maintain the gardens and to teach the preschoolers about nutrition and fitness. “Every time we go into the classroom, we normally bring in something for the kids about gardening, whether it’s seeds or something that’s really very inexpensive.”
A Learning Process
Along the way, Bernstein has faced some bureaucratic as well as natural challenges with her gardens. For example, she shares that Go Healthy STL is primarily focused on preschools because “there is a really big difference between getting into a school district and getting into a preschool. There are so many hurdles to jump over and hoops to jump through.” Then, there’s nature to contend with, she says, adding with a chuckle: “I love gardening, but I think the rabbits and squirrels are probably out to get me out there.”
Her goal right now is to expand Go Healthy STL in the Mid-west area. She already has a couple of gardens in Illinois and is old enough now to drive to those places. Bernstein also has her sights set on taking her program nationwide but is working on how best to manage it. She has gardens at a school in Indiana and one in New York, “but, I have them there because I trust the people there to run them,” she adds.
For her dedication to fighting hunger and promoting fitness in her community, Bernstein was chosen to be an Alliance All Star by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. The Alliance’s Healthy Out-of-School Time initiative also partners with NRPA on health and wellness initiatives, and the Alliance works with dozens of young leaders who advise and provide the organization with a youth perspective on how to encourage young people to make healthy choices.
So, what does it take to make a program like this successful? Bernstein shares: “I started with a pack of seeds and it’s just really grown from there, but you really have to be dedicated and passionate about it. It’s definitely hard at times when you’re going through everything and dealing with issues, but it’s definitely worth it.”
Sonia Myrick is NRPA’s Managing Editor for Parks & Recreation magazine.