From Preteen to Premed: Meet Sophie Bernstein, the Kansas City Med Student Leading Youth to Fight Food Insecurity

Sophie Bernstein

Fall is a great time to revitalize a family’s commitment to community involvement, including ways to support those suffering from food insecurity. If you’re looking for ideas on how to help, Kansas City resident Sophie Bernstein shares here her personal journey for inspiration.

As a 12-year-old, Sophie planted the first seeds of volunteerism by starting her own vegetable garden. With her support, Sophie led 772 youth to volunteer over 38,000 hours and build 28 gardens across the country which have produced 20,000 pounds of fresh produce to local food banks. Fast forward to 2021: Sophie’s studying medicine at University of Missouri at Kansas City, continues to lead youth at VolunTEENnation and Grow Healthy and is leading the international campaign to fight food insecurity with the health snack-bar brand MadeGood as an “Un-Wreck the Future” Ambassador. 

Hi Sophie! Why did you want to tackle the issue of food insecurity? What triggered you to get involved?
I started growing my own vegetable garden in my backyard when I was 12 years old. My parents never wanted me to grow a garden in our backyard. They were concerned that I would quickly lose interest; thus, the bulk of the responsibility would ultimately fall upon them. But I was persistent. 

One spring day they finally acquiesced and drove me to the local Home Depot. Throughout my first season, I harvested an abundance of tomatoes, cucumbers, and basil and I donated the produce to a local food bank where I learned that a large percentage of families in Missouri are facing food insecurities. I knew instantly that I wanted to expand my vegetable garden to provide more fresh produce for the community. 

I recruited and organized teen volunteers to help build and grow these vegetable gardens at low-income daycare facilities.  The gardens provide an ideal space for teen volunteers and young pre-school children to see the direct impact of their actions. These vegetable gardens serve as the intersection where public health meets social action.

Teen volunteers with VolunTEENnation.

What were the major challenges you encountered as a young activist? What are you most proud of achieving?
Initially, one of the most difficult challenges was to recruit teen volunteers to help with the gardening project from the inner-city, the suburbs, and even surrounding rural areas to build and plant the raised garden beds.  I quickly learned that the key to enlisting groups of teen volunteers is to create fun and educational volunteer opportunities that give youth hands-on leadership and the chance to guide small groups.

I am most proud of the youth-led produce gardens that provide a unique opportunity for youth from diverse backgrounds, different races, and religions to connect and discuss race and focus on social injustices in our community while creating positive change. We try to promote unity and problem-solve issues that our region faces. Conversation is the start to understanding the issues and challenges that exist. Youth can help foster a culture that focuses on community health, unity, and commonalities rather than our differences.

Why were you excited to become an Ambassador for the Un-Wreck the Future Campaign?
I was thrilled to be selected as an Un-Wreck the Future Campaign Ambassador to utilize this incredible opportunity and platform to help encourage and motivate young people and families to get involved in improving their communities helping fight hunger and creating and promoting positive change. 

You’re now studying medicine, leading VolunteenNation, working as an international Ambassador for MadeGood, and so much more. How do you find the time to do it all?Balancing my schoolwork and passion for helping fight hunger in my community has been a constant challenge. Leading and volunteering with and serving as an Ambassador for MadeGood provides an outlet from my studies. I try to carve out dedicated time each week to volunteer as a way for me to recharge, refuel and reboot. 

What three things would you suggest to young people (and their parents/friends) to get them excited about volunteering?
The three things to get people excited about volunteering and improving their community are first to find your passion and find ways to give back that utilize your interests (mine was gardening and STEM), second, engage and activate others in a group setting to make volunteering fun, and the third offer great snacks to the volunteers like MadeGood products!

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