STAFFORD - Luke Alpers has never seen the ocean.
He's hardly left Kansas, for that matter.
Yet, from the school greenhouse in the small town of Stafford, population 1,000, the 17-year-old talks passionately about his dreams and his future. He wants to work to end world hunger - a tall order for a kid growing up in rural Kansas.
However, Luke, who graduated Saturday from Stafford High School, is one step closer in his fight for food security - winning a prestigious honor that will allow him to learn and study abroad this summer for an organization aimed at fighting hunger.
Luke is one of 24 high school students or college freshmen nationwide selected by the World Food Prize for the Borlaug-Ruan internship program at renowned international research centers and NGOs this summer. They will learn more about global hunger and poverty during an eight-week, all-expenses-paid internship in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
"It's one of those things. Out of all these students, what chance do I have?" said Luke. "I'm in a school of 64 kids. I'm one of two students in the whole state of Kansas that even came to this. And to think that it is actually true is so surreal. To think I actually made it. It is a huge, huge, huge honor that I'm able to do this - that the World Food Prize selected me for such a prestigious internship."
Luke will go to the WorldFish Center in Penang, Malaysia. WorldFish is an international, nonprofit research organization that harnesses the potential of fisheries and aquaculture to reduce hunger and poverty.
"It will change my life for sure," he said.
Developing a passion
Luke's parents, Jennifer and Todd Alpers, have always noticed their son's curiosity. He also always enjoyed helping his grandfather grow pumpkins, Jennifer said.
But his interest in helping others and horticulture seemed to expand as he hit high school, thanks to a few teachers, including science teacher Mike Cargill.
"He came in like any freshman," said Cargill, adding anecdotally of his students' dreams: " 'I'll be a doctor, a business person, a CPA.' But somewhere down the road, he goes, 'This is pretty cool: We can find a way to feed people.' "
Cargill, who spent years in zoos in Chicago and Great Bend, has been getting his students to think outside the box since he came to Stafford six years ago. For instance, containers of recyclables filled with mealworms sit on cabinets in Cargill's classroom. Students are conducting experiments on how well they eat cardboard, Styrofoam and plastic with the idea the worms could help landfills. After a year of research, it is clearly working, Cargill said.
Other projects include simulating a cow's stomach with milk jugs. Students trapped the methane gas, then researched ways to use it as an energy.
One student is even working on a way to filter water of contaminants and diseases, such as typhoid.
In the greenhouse for the past few years, Luke, with the help of Cargill, has been working with aquaponics – an aquaculture system where the waste produced by fish is used to create nutrients for plants. The fish, fed worms grown in the greenhouse, supply nutrients for plants grown hydroponically, which, in turn, purify the water. No chemical, fertilizers or pesticides are used.
From that experience, Luke has been working out the details for the perfect system that can be used in third-world countries with limited resources.
At present, the school’s small system takes about 250 gallons of water, but only needs a gallon of water added every day. It was built with plastic containers disposed of by a local farmer. In the past, the school has used tilapia in the aquaponics system, although any fish native to a country could be used. And, while the school system includes rocks, Alpers and his class have experimented with stripped pop bottles that were boiled. They turned them into a possible recyclable growing medium.
Luke said one of the biggest hurdles in third-world countries is education. They have long planted and harvested crops in the same way - even if it isn't as efficient. "They don't know any different."
That's where he wants to step in, he said.
"I want people to be food-secure," Luke said. "I feel I have the knowledge to do this, and it is my duty to spread it to people who don’t have the knowledge."
Making the short list
Through attending the World Food Prize's Kansas Youth Institute at Kansas State University, Luke was chosen to go to the Global Youth Institute, held each year in Iowa. More than 200 youths - including two from Kansas - attended the October event, which coincides with the annual presentation of the World Food Prize - the “Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture." Norman E. Borlaug, known for his work improving wheat varieties, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. He founded the World Food Prize in 1986.
Attending the global event made Luke eligible to apply for the Borlaug-Ruan internship program.
Luke submitted resumes and reference letters, plus an essay.
More than 100 people applied for the internship, said Nicole Barreca, spokeswoman for the World Food Prize.
Luke said that was narrowed down to 40 who did a Skype interview with a panel. The organization announced the 24 interns chosen May 8.
Luke leaves in mid-June, returning in mid-August - just in time to head to K-State, where he plans to major in biological systems engineering.
"I am excited to see the different culture and to see what real food insecurity is like," he said. "In the United States, we have more food than they would see in a lifetime."
He said most American don't know what food insecurity really means.
"We are a blessed country that we are not food-insecure, for the most part. But I think Americans should understand that a lot of the world isn't as fortunate as we are."
Luke said they gave him a $500 stipend. He will live with a family in Malaysia. In all, organization leaders told him they invest between $8,000 and $10,000 per intern.
At the World Food Prize in October, Luke will give a presentation on what he learned.
"We're just excited for him and proud of him," said his mother, Jennifer.
Carrying on a dream
Cargill said he is excited to see a student grasp what he and other instructors have been teaching.
"The goal for all of us is to find someone who will carry on the dream," said Cargill. "And he is carrying on what I believe is really important: He has a passion to help feed the world and take care of the world. I have been very lucky to find a student that catches on."
Jennifer Alpers noted how Cargill has been a mentor to her son. Many stories start with "Mr. Cargill and I."
"They have a unique relationship, and he has been such a positive impact," Alpers said, adding Cargill has helped nurture Luke to expand his knowledge. "One of Luke's great strengths is he can take a piece of information over here and a piece of information way over there and see that maybe these things can connect."
Cargill said he is proud of Luke and has been impressed by his leadership ability. Luke has been a mentor to younger students.
World Food Prize leaders told the intern group during a recent meeting how the internship changes lives. Cargill said he expects Luke will come back a different person.
"It is a pretty amazing opportunity for a young person to come from a small 1A school and get on a plane and go to Malaysia and work at a research center that is actually changing people’s lives," Cargill said.