Sophie Bernstein was having a busy week. Studying for four quizzes at Clayton High School, taking part in softball practice and fielding questions about the $36,000 grant her organization was recently awarded – can’t forget that.
The 15-year-old sophomore landed the grant for her ongoing Go Healthy St. Louis project as part of an award from San Francisco’s Helen Diller Family Foundation.
“I was thrilled,” Bernstein says of the foundation’s windfall, “a great opportunity” for which she also voices effusive thanks. “This grant will help me double the amount of gardens I have.”
Loosely, Go Healthy St. Louis – which, as she recalls, sprouted from a pack of beefsteak tomato seeds roughly four years ago – centers on planting and tending vegetable gardens to benefit residents of low-income households and local food deserts (neighborhoods either low on or bereft of budget-friendly, nutritious dietary options).
If that sounds more than a bit activist, it should. Bernstein, the daughter of Brad and Moira Bernstein, hails from a service-oriented family.
Her father serves in the U.S. Navy Reserves, for instance, and her older siblings, Simone and Jake, co-founded a voluntarism-focused endeavor that itself just earned a grant. (Bernstein also acknowledges her mother’s patience in chauffeuring her hither and yon for Go Healthy St. Louis.)
The success of that initial pack of beefsteak tomato seeds inspired Bernstein to expand her green-thumbed efforts into fuller gardening, which inspired an even more expansive epiphany.
“I realized a lot of kids didn’t know a lot about healthy eating, so we started implementing nutritional classes inside preschools,” she says, “and then we added more gardens – and it just kept going from there.”
Although her educational efforts for Go Healthy St. Louis have included select higher-level educational institutions, Bernstein’s focus in large part has fallen on preschools. “I personally believe that the way to teach people is at a younger age,” she says.
Bernstein, modestly, also credits her friends for supporting her work from the start. Following the announcement of the Diller award, though, the roster of volunteers for Go Healthy St. Louis vastly branched out.
“After the publicity,” Bernstein says, “I definitely had more people whom I don’t even know (offer their aid). My teachers were saying, ‘Thank you for what you do,’ and I’ve gotten a lot of emails from my friends’ parents, saying, ‘What can we do to help?’”
Bernstein estimates that Go Healthy St. Louis just planted its 19th garden locally, with a collective yearly yield of 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of produce.
For that produce, her choices have a great deal of forethought.
Although her gardens don’t exclude root veggies like that titan of the tubers, the potato, and carrots, for example, Bernstein confesses to downplaying them for a reason. “I like having a plant that kids can see, like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, something like that,” she says.
For a similar reason, despite her fondness for all vegetables, Bernstein also downplays crops like Brussels sprouts and cauliflower after conferring with local food banks.
“If people don’t know what to do with them, they’re more likely to not take (the vegetables),” she says. “I would rather bring in stuff that people are going to take and know how to cook with.”
A similar canny rationale prompted her to include a common culinary herb among her crops.
“It’s good to give the kids something not only to see, but also to smell, and basil has been absolutely amazing – it’s grown so well,” Bernstein says.
Self-evidently, Go Healthy St. Louis’ outreach involves far more than providing produce to food banks and other distribution sources.
“Educating kids is a really important part of it,” Bernstein says. “It wasn’t just about having the gardens…it was actually about getting kids active in the outdoors and what we’re eating.”
Almost perforce, Bernstein has leveraged Twitter and other social media to cultivate interest in Go Healthy St. Louis, whether in the gardens proper or side efforts like food drives.
Since launching Go Healthy St. Louis, moreover, the changing seasons have done nothing to blight Bernstein’s efforts, she reports. Winter’s arrival allows her to continue collecting healthy options for food drives (peanut butter in particular), building workshop curriculums and – almost necessarily – plotting for the next growing season.
Bernstein cites obesity among children and adults alike as a U.S. health-related scourge, a deepening rot on our national roots, nurtured by a shortage or an absence of healthy foods.
“That’s a problem that the U.S. faces today,” she says, “and we really need to do something about it. Food banks are trying to be healthier, but they aren’t really doing that.”
Finally, Bernstein mentions broadening the scope of Go Healthy St. Louis, initially to Illinois and then, perhaps, the rest of the Midwest – and even the whole nation.
To learn more about Go Healthy St. Louis, find them on Twitter @GoHealthySTL.