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Giving high school students life lessons in business, food production and philanthropy

Grains for Hope is a collaboration of K-State, Sabetha High School and Wenger Manufacturing.

grains for hopePhotos and captions available

Released: April 6, 2016

SABETHA, Kan. – What started as a challenge to a group of Kansas high school students 13 years ago is now a real-life effort focused on feeding hungry people half a world away and teaching about business, food production, communication and more in the process.

In 2003, Sabetha High School library media specialist Carol Spangler came up with the idea that students throughout the school should be challenged to find a solution to a problem.

The result is Grains for Hope, a collaboration of SHS, Kansas State University and Wenger Manufacturing to find an easy-to-prepare, nutritious food product for hungry people in Mozambique and potentially other countries where people don’t have enough to eat.

The program involves students and faculty at the high school and K-State, who have worked with recipients in Haiti and Mozambique.

“I thought it would be a good idea to involve all the students,” said Spangler of the challenge she initially envisioned. It took shape after she participated in an internship at Wenger Manufacturing in 2002. “Some of the extrusion guys shared their ideas of working with young people to solve problems, so we started working together and are constantly amazed at the potential and abilities of teenagers.”

Wenger, based in Sabetha, Kansas, makes extrusion equipment for food and feed production plants. It also has offices in Belgium, Taiwan, Brazil and China.

Extruders cook and push material – in the case of Grains for Hope, food ingredients – through a shaped die to form a product with a preset cross section. The process allows different ingredients to be incorporated into a shaped product. Many types of breakfast cereal, snacks, pasta and dry pet food are products made with an extruder.

Food production

“Go out there – get covered in flour,” said Sajid Alavi, Kansas State University professor of grain science and director of K-State’s extrusion lab, to 20 SHS students recently as they donned hair nets before moving into the lab to watch the bean-shaped product being made. The students were just the latest to make the 86-mile trip to Manhattan to see the production process firsthand. Once the university produces it, the students take over. With the help of community volunteers, the students work with contacts – this year, in Mozambique – to package and ship the product.  

From Alavi’s perspective, the goal is two-fold: to come up with a nutritious product that can be commercialized and to provide food to feeding programs in parts of the world where food is scarce.

“There are 850 million people (around the world) who are chronically hungry,” he told the students. “Food security is a complex challenge. This problem is not going away in three or four years.”

In Mozambique, 90 percent of the population is involved in agriculture, Alavi said, but most of those people have just one or two acres.

In other countries, obesity is a problem, he added, so part of the challenge is distribution – getting food from areas where it’s available to areas where it isn’t.

The food product Grains for Hope is sending to Mozambique this year is not a bean, but it is a new product in the shape of a navy bean. It contains soy, wheat, sorghum, salt, monoglycerides to keep it from crumbling during cooking, vitamin and mineral premix, and titanium dioxide for whitening, an ingredient also found in toothpaste. The aim is to come up with food that’s easy to prepare, tasty and nutritious. Sustainability is also a goal, said Alavi, noting that if recipients of the food like it, they will want to produce it in their country.

Researchers are exploring uses of sorghum in food in the U.S. and worldwide, as it’s a sustainable crop and uses less water than many other food crops, he said. It’s also grown and consumed widely in Africa, so the new bean-shaped product has commercial potential there.

The extrusion lab in K-State’s Bioprocessing and Industrial Value Added Program (BIVAP) building is a smaller version of what’s found in a large food-processing plant. K-State’s lab is used for research and to train students for careers in food-related fields, rather than large-scale production. 

Once the bean-shaped product is made, it must be dried before it can be packaged and stored. And, that’s one of the challenges. There are commercial dryers on the market for food products, Alavi said, but the expense and lack of a consistent power supply in some countries can be impediments.   

Not your average school organization

Sabetha High School freshman Kortney Plattner said she got involved with Grains for Hope because she likes the idea of potentially helping feed thousands of people. Her career ambitions don’t involve food production, but they do involve helping people – as a doctor. 

Learning leadership skills, problem solving, talking on the telephone, figuring out what to do regarding raising awareness and determining which country should be the recipient are activities the SHS students take on, said Spangler, who also teaches French and English.

“For example, the kids decided to try to send to Mozambique again, after sending the product to Haiti for the past several years. It's harder to send it as far away as Mozambique, but with help from knowledgeable adults, it will happen,” she said. 

Developing global relationships is not new to Sabetha, but it is new to this generation of Sabethans, Spangler said, adding that the support of Wenger Manufacturing is critical to the project.

The number of SHS students that participate ebbs and flows, depending on the particular activity needed throughout the year, Spangler said: “Anyone is welcome to participate, to take a hiatus, come back and be a part of the group at any time.” 

Community partners

Spangler said people from all walks of life help make Grains for Hope possible, including grain companies, local businesses, and individuals who contribute time and ingredients.  

“For me as a teacher, the internship at Wenger Manufacturing in 2002 was a turning point in my career,” she said. “I will always be thankful to Wenger personally, and to the other local companies that continue to support educators and students alike.”

“K-State gives us the opportunity to visit the BIVAP center, to hear from KSU students and professors from many departments, and to interact with professionals in the fields of business, agriculture, rural development, communications, finance and so many other walks of life,” Spangler said, noting that the university has helped with the production of food products since the beginning of Grains for Hope.

“Grains for Hope is the education model that should set the precedent for public education in Kansas, the United States and internationally,” Spangler said, adding that her role is to make the connections between the students and the adult experts.

“These adults become mentors for the students. The students grow in confidence, in ability and in success. I am convinced that these students become the most valuable of employees that know how to succeed in their careers. Loyalty, practical problem solving, good manners and courtesy, reliability and honest integrity demonstrated by the mentors develop Grains For Hope students into outstanding adults.” 

More information about Grains for Hope is available at Grains for Hope.


K‑State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well‑being of Kansans.  Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K‑State campus in Manhattan.

Story by:
Mary Lou Peter

For more information:
Sajid Alavi - 785-532-2403 or salavi@ksu.edu
Carol Spangler – spanglec@usd113.org