"Katie is a very special young lady," says Elois Mackey, 56, who has received fresh vegetables from Katie since 2009, when she lived temporarily at a local homeless shelter.
In 2008, Katie Stagliano planted a cabbage seedling in her family’s backyard in Summerville, South Carolina.
After it grew to an astonishing 40 lbs., Katie donated it to a homeless shelter. Two days later she returned to help serve some of the 275 meals (rounded out by ham and rice) made with her massive crucifer.
“I’ve never felt so good in my life,” Katie told PEOPLE in 2009, when she was a fifth grader. “I thought, ‘Wow, with one cabbage I helped feed that many people? I could do much more.’ ”
Indeed she has — she’s fed thousands more, in fact.
Katie started with a handful of gardens—in her subdivision, on donated land outside of town and on a field at her school — and received help from volunteers, gardeners, her classmates, and a plant company that donated seedlings.
Since 2009, when Katie and her crew began supplying local soup kitchens with squash, okra, cabbage and other crops, Katie has continued to grow — creating the nonprofit Katies Krops and giving out 22,000 pounds of produce to soup kitchens, food pantries and numerous needy families.
Katie, now 18 and a high school senior, also began creating monthly dinners six years ago from her crops at a local church after the only soup kitchen in the area, where Katie had made twice-weekly deliveries, closed.
“I was extremely worried about all the people who were there,” says Katie, who with the help of classmates feeds 200 people at each dinner.
In addition, and thanks to grants from Katie, kids in 33 states (called Katie’s Krops Growers) tend to 100 Katie’s Krops gardens. These young growers have donated an additional 53,000 pounds of produce to the poor in their own communities.
“I can’t put it into words how I feel about Katie,” says Gladys Edge, who runs God’s Kitchen, a food pantry at Murray United Methodist Church in Summerville that gets twice-weekly deliveries from Katie during the growing season.
“She does such an important job for us. I’ve known her since she was very young and grew the big cabbage,” Edge says. “I’m surprised she is doing such a beautiful job, and to be so young.”
Says Elois Mackey, 56, who has received fresh vegetables from Katie since 2009, when she lived temporarily at a local homeless shelter: “She’s always been helping us. The vegetables are nice and fresh, it’s been a wonderful help. Katie is a very special young lady.”
Cece Hartford, 10, started a Katie’s Krops garden in her hometown of Urbana, Maryland, after seeing Katie on ABC’s The Chew and receiving a $500 grant from Katie’s Krops. Last year, with the help of 24 other young growers, Cece donated 424 pounds of vegetables to her local food bank, rescue mission and families.
“I’ve known about people not having enough food and once I saw Katie I thought it was a good idea for me to help out,” says Cece. “It feels good giving back to others.”
The tremendous good Katie has done won’t stop when she graduates high school in May. An A student admitted to all the colleges she applied to, Katie chose the nearby College of Charleston to continue working hands-on with Katie’s Krops.
Along the way she’s also published the 2014 children’s book Katie’s Cabbage and created a summer camp for her Katie’s Krops growers.
“When I first started with my cabbage, I never would have imagined any of this could have happened,” says Katie. “It is crazy to think how everything has fallen into place because of one cabbage.”
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