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St. Louis Children Can “Grow Healthy” Thanks to Local Teen

By Elissa Einhorn

     Welcome to Grow Healthy.
     Wasting no time getting her backyard garden growing, Bernstein, now 17, remembers how she decided to donate the surplus from her flourishing crops to a local food bank. Her initial excitement turned to concern as she arrived and took stock of the inventory—shelves lined primarily with unhealthy snacks and little fresh produce.
     “I quickly realized the disparity between areas in St. Louis,” she explains, using the term “food deserts” to describe what she saw. “People want (fresh food), but they don’t have access to it.”
     The budding teenager recognized that her garden could be used to not only help combat childhood hunger, but also to help fight childhood obesity. Armed with a family tradition of volunteerism, giving back, and being of service (her father and sister both serve in the military), Bernstein provided the wood, dirt, and other materials needed to build her first community vegetable garden.
     “I went to the YMCA and donated the garden,” Bernstein says of that first step, which led to her next step. “I realized I could also teach kids so it became a service learning project. I began in preschools, teaching kids how to plant a bed and take care of a garden, and about healthy eating.”
     After receiving an enthusiastic response from preschool administrators, Bernstein went to work. With 3- and 4-year-old assistants at her side and advice from St. Louis’ Botanical Gardens, Bernstein planted several herbs and vegetables, among them basil, mint, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, zucchini, and eggplant. While her little helpers got messy, the teen talked with them about the humble beginnings of foods that many had never seen in grocery stores, never mind in their lunch boxes or on their dinner tables.
     “Kids had never seen produce,” the Clayton High School student recalls incredulously. “They didn’t know where it came from. They ate a lot of processed food items because they last longer.”
     Realizing the potential of her venture, Bernstein began recruiting others teens via VolunTEEN Nation, an online platform that encompasses and encourages a spirit of volunteerism by matching teens and young adults with volunteer opportunities nationwide. Since Grow Healthy’s inception, she has trained more than 750 volunteers who have helped build, plant, and maintain local gardens.
     “I wanted to give back around something I was passionate about,” Bernstein explains. “I wanted it to be bigger than myself. Youth have the power to make a difference. We gave them that opportunity to give back.”
     And give back they have. Since 2012, Grow Healthy has built 30 gardens, the majority of which are in preschools and crisis nurseries; donated 35,000 pounds of produce to local food banks; hosted more than 1,200 teens at monthly workshops in churches, synagogues, and schools; and clocked nearly 40,000 volunteer hours. Bernstein alone has logged more than 3,500 of those hours on various aspects of the operation—from planting to harvesting to delivering food, to leading workshops and sports clinics, and to being the visionary for the organization, which has expanded to Zionsville, located near Indianapolis, and the city of Olean in western New York State.

     Although she is busy planning for college, the high school senior shows no signs of slowing down. She hopes to expand Grow Healthy to other Midwest cities and she has developed a tool kit that contains wood, seeds, and other basic gardening fixins’, along with a curriculum, so preschools can plant their own gardens and become sustainable.
     Despite her parents’ initial trepidation, Bernstein credits them with helping her toward success by not only being positive role models and for driving her around town, but also for encouraging their daughter to persevere even when other people told her “no,” which was, ironically, their first response to their daughter’s garden proposal! So persevere she did and she encourages other teenagers to do the same.
     “If preschools told me ‘no,’ my parents said, ‘go back and be persistent,’” Bernstein says. “They also told me not to be afraid of making mistakes because making mistakes is how we learn.” 

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When Sophie Bernstein asked her parents if she could build her own vegetable garden, they feared their then-12-year-old daughter wasn’t quite responsible enough. Their reply? A disappointing “no.”

Undeterred, the outdoor enthusiast who loves digging in the dirt, came up with an alternative plan, transforming her personal desire into a community service project. Her parents acquiesced, having no idea that their daughter was on the verge of changing the nutritional landscape for one of St. Louis’ most vulnerable populations.