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30 Under 30: The girl who wants to end hunger

UC Global Food Initiative 30 Under 30 winner Katie Stagliano (center) founded Katie's Krops as a 9-year-old.

UC Global Food Initiative 30 Under 30 winner Katie Stagliano (center) founded Katie's Krops.

This story starts with a single cabbage. But it wasn’t just any cabbage, however. It was a 40-pound cabbage, grown by a 9-year-old girl named Katie Stagliano.

Katie Stagliano, at 9, with the cabbage that started it all.

This young gardener donated that huge cabbage to her local soup kitchen, and it fed more than 275 people. Inspired by that experience, she started Katie’s Krops. The nonprofit now has 100 gardens around the country, all grown by kids who are donating these healthy foods to feed the hungry in their communities.

Today, Katie is 17 years old, but she’s still the youngest recipient of the University of California Global Food Initiative’s 30 Under 30 leaders in the food industry. (She also was the youngest recipient of the Clinton Global Citizen Award.) I had the pleasure of meeting Katie in my garden blogging work, and she was kind enough to allow me to interview her for UC Food Observer.

Q: Congratulations on being named among University of California’s 30 Under 30. How does it feel to be called one of 30 young leaders making a difference in our food system?

Katie Stagliano: At 17 years old, it is an incredible honor to be named among the University of California’s 30 Under 30. If you would have asked me at 9 years old, before I donated my cabbage to Tri County Family Ministries, what I imagined would grow from the donation of one cabbage, I could have never foreseen how much it would change my life.

Katie Stagliano today at age 17.

I’m so blessed to be on this journey. I hope that by being named among 30 Under 30 it will show others that age is just a number, never an obstacle. You can do anything that you set your heart to.

Q: In 2015 there were 83 Katie’s Krops gardens growing across the United States. What are the current numbers for 2016? Did you ever expect the program would grow so quickly? Why do you think this program has grown to include so many gardens?

Katie Stagliano: I’m very proud to say in 2016 that Katie’s Krops has 100 youth run gardens growing in 32 states across the United States. I could have never imagined how big Katie’s Krops would become, and how many people we have been able to provide fresh produce to at no charge.

I wholeheartedly believe that if it were not for the incredible and supportive people I’ve met along the way, who have believed in me and my dream, Katie’s Krops would not be at the level it is today.

I have found amazing kids across the United States who are passionate about ending hunger in their communities. We’ve come together and created a family of Katie’s Krops growers. Working together I believe we can grow a healthy end to hunger, one vegetable garden at a time.

Q: What has been the biggest surprise about starting Katie’s Krops?

Katie Stagliano: The biggest surprise for me after starting Katie’s Krops was discovering how many people are affected by hunger. When I donated my 40-pound cabbage, I was able to see for the first time the faces of hunger and homelessness. These were people just like my family who were struggling with food insecurity. You may never know if your friend, neighbor or classmate is struggling to put food on the table every night.

The people that I share my harvest with have become my extended family. The Katie’s Krops dinners are my favorite part of Katie’s Krops. I am able to interact and share a meal with the people who benefit from the gardens. These include World War II veterans, individuals battling cancer and other life-threatening diseases, great-grandparents caring for their great-grandchildren, and families who at the end of the month simply have no money left for food. My gardens have grown so much more than just fresh produce. The gardens have grown beautiful friendships.

Q: Do you think most people understand the power of youth gardens? If not, why should they?

Katie Stagliano: I believe that youth have the power to do incredible things. Youth gardens are just one example of that. It is important to stand behind youth and support their efforts to improve their communities, because they are our future.

Katie’s Krops Growers are the next generation of agriculturists, nutritionists and leaders in the fresh food industry. By empowering young growers, we are not only having an impact on the health and well-being of communities, we are shaping future leaders. It is vital that youth have an understanding of the origin of the food they eat and with a growing world population how we can increase production of healthy fresh food.

Q: How has starting Katie’s Krops influenced your life so far?

Katie Stagliano: Starting Katie’s Krops has completely transformed my life. Every facet of my life now involves Katie’s Krops.

I am blessed to attend a school, Pinewood Preparatory School, which believes I learn as much in the classroom as I do growing Katie’s Krops. They have allowed me to locate my flagship garden on their campus. They balance my school schedule to allow me to grow Katie’s Krops and have supported my efforts by having every level of the school participate.

Even the sports I participate in are connected to Katie’s Krops. The largest fundraiser we host is “Dive in To End Hunger,” which is a youth-based event that involves swimming. Many of my teammates are Katie’s Krops volunteers.

My family has also jumped on board to support Katie’s Krops. Currently, my mother is the president of Katie’s Krops, my brother is a Katie’s Krops grower and uses his harvest to make weekly meals for our local homeless shelter and my father is a board member and treasurer. My grandparents have become volunteers and supporters. Truly my entire family now works for the cause.

I am thrilled to say that I am a published author. My first book, "Katie’s Cabbage," shares the story of how my journey began. It is a wonderful way to encourage children to follow their dreams and understand that at any age they can serve their communities.

I also am blessed to travel the country speaking about my efforts and I am honored to be the youngest member of the Clinton Global Initiative. None of this would have been possible without my 40-pound cabbage and Katie’s Krops.

Q: What have you learned about yourself and our world through the Katie’s Krops program?

Katie Stagliano: At 9 years old, I never imagined how my cabbage would change my life and lead me down the path of youth service.

Through Katie’s Krops, I’ve learned the power of youth and youth service. I never realized how much I was capable of, and the difference we, just kids, could make working together in the fight against hunger. Katie’s Krops has allowed me to meet some of the most incredible people, who have dedicated their lives to making the world a better place.

To be able to travel the country and share my story speaking to thousands of people is something I never imagined I’d be able to do, but something that I truly enjoy. I hope by speaking to others, they can see that anything is possible and they will find their own 40-pound cabbage that will truly change their life.

Q: What frustrates you about hunger in America? What inspires you?

Katie Stagliano: What frustrates me the most about hunger in America is that many emergency food programs are only able to offer packaged and processed food. While all food groups are important, fresh fruits and vegetables are so vital to a healthy diet. I wish that it was possible for more programs to offer healthy, fresh produce to those in need.

Throughout my work with Katie’s Krops I’ve seen the ties between hunger and obesity. Often times those who are food insecure only eat packaged and processed food, which are basically empty calories from soda and junk food. This is especially true in food deserts. As a result, many people who struggle to put food on the table often also face obesity. This is why I am so passionate about the work we do at Katie’s Krops. Youth are not only part of the solution to hunger, but they are also part of the solution to obesity in food insecure individuals.

I would definitely say that I am most inspired by the people I help. It is always incredible to hear stories from the people, who are helped by Katie’s Krops. Although they are in need, they often share the produce with their friends who are also in need.