New Kid on Campus: Sorghum’s use in K-State’s Dining Hall

Kansas State University leads the pack in utilizing sorghum in on-campus dining. Started as a project to accommodate vegetarian students, new sorghum options on-campus appeal to vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike.

Written by: Delanie Crist

Campuses across the country are looking into versatile, new products to serve roughly 19.9 million students across the United States, and Kansas State University is one of several learning institutions that has taken an interest in serving sorghum.

Kelly Whitehair, Ph.D., RD, LD, an Administrative Dietitian for Housing and Dining Services, at K-State has been incorporating whole grain sorghum onto campus menus since the summer of 2017.

“The option [to incorporate sorghum] started from the drive to include vegan and vegetarian options, which typically end up being grain based,” she said. “We started off simple, and now we’ve incorporated sorghum into soups and different grain bowls.”

The K-State dining service team has the size and equipment to experiment with different sorghum recipes. What started from simpler recipes like pilafs has evolved into a variety of whole grain sorghum meals for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike.

“There was an initial learning curve to show what sorghum looks and tastes like,” Whitehair said. “We recognized the nutritional impact [of sorghum] and are finding ways we can sub it in for other recipes.”

For K-State dietetics student, Alex Vonderschmidt, working with sorghum has become one of his responsibilities under Dr. Whitehair’s recipe and development team. One focus area for Vonderschmidt  includes nutritional development that adopts whole grains as a primary ingredient on plates similar to the Mediterranean diet.

“We wanted to use sorghum because it’s locally grown, and we want to support the sorghum industry as much as we can here at K-State,” he said.

Vonderschmidt enjoys using sorghum within different meals and hopes to produce more menu concepts centered around sorghum. Sorghum’s complex nutrition profile fits well within his primarily vegan and vegetarian recipes.

“As a student in recipe development, it’s fascinating to cook with new things and see what options are available,” he said. “Sorghum is exciting to use.”

Sorghum works well within K-State’s Housing and Dining Services newly initiated menu program titled “Cultivate You” focused on dining decisions within the different dining halls across campus, Whitehair said.

“The Cultivate You menu concept is where we focus on wellness, sustainability and community,” she said. “We try to pull those topics together through food and education applications. This semester we do a grain bowl every Friday, and we often feature sorghum along with other grains. The bowls are a new concept that have gone over really, really well.”

One unique aspect of K-State’s incorporation of sorghum is the local availability. Fitting into the community aspect of Cultivate You, K-State has been sourcing their grains from the Kansas-based Nu Life Market company, a leading sorghum producer of food products.

“We can get sorghum year-round in Kansas and brag about it being local,” Whitehair said. “We can truly say it’s from the heartland.”

Nu Life Market’s Business Development Manager Rachel Klataske noted she has seen an increased interest from universities who are seeking out alternative or gluten-free grain options for students.

“When we talk about sorghum as a sustainable grain, it definitely peaks people’s interests,” Klataske said. “We have been working with universities to get sorghum on their menus.”

The Kansas Department of Agriculture also recognizes the important benefits of sorghum within the foodservice marketplace. Kerry Wefald, the Agriculture Marketing Director at KDA, said collaborations with the Sorghum Checkoff and colleges and universities are presenting opportunities for sorghum menu growth and expansion, especially within the food service sector.

“KDA has been working with industry partners to develop food-grade sorghum education and marketing opportunities by placing sorghum products in mainstream food service locations within K-State and the University of Kansas,” she said. “We hope to expand to other campuses across Kansas in the long-term. Sorghum is gaining popularity in food products, and we want to help promote Kansas-grown products.”

KDA has been working with the University of Kansas to potentially serve up a sorghum inspired dish, which will highlight farmers who have locally grown and harvested their products. The KDA goal for KU is to have a menu item in place during Ag Month in March.

“Our mission is to make sure we are out there [on college campuses], talking about the different sectors of agriculture that are important to Kansas,” Wefald said. “We are listening to thoughts, comments and feedback to ensure the important information about Kansas sorghum is known.”

“Our mission is to make sure we are out there [on college campuses], talking about the different sectors of agriculture that are important to Kansas,” Wefald said. “We are listening to thoughts, comments and feedback to ensure the important information about Kansas sorghum is known.”

Since Kansas is the largest sorghum producing state, K-State is an ideal location to be one of the early adopters to incorporate sorghum onto the menu and has had a direct influence on the market. There is an increased interest in food-grade sorghum across the country, and several additional campuses are looking into serving sorghum as a menu option.