Not too many of us would be able to definitively point to one single thing that determined who we became and what we did with our lives. Even fewer would be able to point to a cruciferous vegetable. At least not with a straight face. But Katie Stagliano can say without any irony, hesitation or exaggeration that a head of cabbage changed the entire course of her life.

To be fair, it was one heck of a cabbage. It started out in 2008 as an average, nondescript seedling that the 9-year-old Stagliano had received from the Bonnie Plants Third Grade Cabbage Program and planted in a sunny corner of her backyard in Summerville, S.C. But – thanks to Stagliano’s nurturing attention and protection – the cabbage eventually grew to a whopping 40 lbs. (the largest head of cabbage on record weighed in at 138 lbs., in case you’re wondering).

What does a 9-year-old do with 40 lbs. of cabbage? She starts a nonprofit that feeds hundreds of people across the country, claiming the attention of People magazine, Oprah, Bill Clinton, General Mills and Hasbro (who, coincidentally, owned the Cabbage Patch Kids brand during the peak of its popularity).

But first, she harvests the mighty crucifer with a saw, hauls it to Tricounty Family Ministries in North Charleston and shares it with local people struggling with hunger.

“I served my cabbage to 275 people at the soup kitchen,” says the sophomore communication major. “That’s the day my dream of growing a healthy end to hunger was born.”

The seed for Katie’s Krops was planted, and – like that original cabbage – it kept growing and growing. Now with more than 100 gardens in 30 states, Katie’s Krops provides the seed money for children ages 9 to 16 to start and maintain their crops – the yield from which is donated to hunger relief programs, cancer centers and families in need.

“It’s fun and easy, and it has so many positive outcomes: Katie’s Krops Growers are doing good in the community, combating obesity and learning about agriculture, nutrition, budgeting and where food comes from,” says Stagliano, noting that, every year, hundreds of kids across the country apply to start Katie’s Krops Gardens in their own backyards, at their schools, at local community centers and even on rooftops. “Our ultimate goal is to provide young growers with the knowledge, tools and inspiration to empower them to become part of a youth-driven solution to a global problem.”

Since launching Katie’s Krops in 2008, Stagliano has received her share of accolades and press,including the Hasbro Community Action Hero award and profiles in People magazine and on the Oprah Winfrey Network’s The Hero Effect and the Great American Country cable network’s Great American Heroes With Trace Adkins. She has also received the Clinton Global Citizen Award and the Feeding Better Futures General Mills Scholars Program grand prize of $50,000 and a trip to the 2018 Aspen Ideas Festival, where she spoke about Katie’s Krops.

“Had I picked a different cabbage seedling… my life would be something different.” – Katie Stagliano

“I never in a million years thought a big company like General Mills would support our little gardens – but, working together, we can make a huge impact,” she says, adding that the money has allowed Katie’s Krops to offer more grants to more children. “That kind of money could really change the face of Katie’s Krops and help us fight hunger, obesity and the global lack of access to food.”

The goal right now is to keep fundraising and building the Katie’s Krops brand, which is where the College of Charleston comes in.

“One reason I wanted to be a communication major is to build up my PR and marketing background so that I can help Katie’s Krops grow as an organization,” says Stagliano, who chose the College in part because it is close enough to home that she can still help with the operations of Katie’s Krops. “Plus, I can still go to Katie’s Krops Dinners!”

These monthly garden-to-table dinners in Summerville have become a staple over the past nine years – and not just for Stagliano: Some 150 to 200 people regularly attend these charity feasts for anyone in need of a hot meal.

“I’ve essentially grown up with this second family. All these people have seen me grow up, and I’ve been there with them and seen their ups and downs over the years,” says Stagliano, noting that her great-grandmother came to each and every dinner until she was 99. “It’s so nice that there’s a place for people to go where they can see familiar faces and get a warm meal. It’s something to look forward to.”

As for Stagliano, she’s looking forward to seeing where her childhood dream takes her.

“Really, everything I’m doing and everything I’ve become is because of Katie’s Krops – and it all started with a cabbage I grew when I was just a kid,” she says. “Had I picked a different cabbage seedling, had it had different sunlight or soil or water, my life would be something different. Because of that seedling, my life was forever changed. It gave me a purpose and a community and a business and a career.”

And it gave thousands of hungry people a warm, nutritious meal. Now, that’s one heck of a cabbage.

Featured image: Katie Stagliano works in a Katie’s Krops garden. (Photos by Mike Ledford)