Lamar Academy closet repurposed into Energy Bar for students

McALLEN — An old storage closet at Lamar Academy received a full makeover to help feed students who might need an extra meal throughout the school day or those who need to take food home.

The space is now filled with fruits, milk, juice, canned foods, granola bars, soups and even toiletries for all students to take at any time during the day.

The pantry, dubbed the Energy Bar, officially opened this school year. It was born out of the idea of two students, Samantha Almaraz and Pablo Ramirez, to tackle food insecurity in their campus, as well as food waste.

“We don’t want it to only be known as a pantry, but as a place to refuel,” Ramirez said. “It could be for energy during the school day, or students might need to take some food home, so it works for both reasons.”

The two students held a news conference Monday morning in which they showcased the finished pantry to media and administrators from other McAllen ISD campuses, in hopes the idea spreads throughout the district.

Both Almaraz and Ramirez are 16-year-old students enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program at Lamar. The Energy Bar was not part of any assignment, they said. Instead, it surfaced after seeing that legislation was being introduced to allow schools in Texas to repurpose or redistribute any non-perishable cafeteria food.

Once they heard Senate Bill 725 passed, allowing schools to do this, the two students reached out to the school administrators to assess the need within the school.

The results, Ramirez said, were that at least 30 percent of students in the IB program and 80 percent of students in the Options program at Lamar are economically disadvantaged and might not have consistent access to food. So they set out along with school officials and their mothers to make the Energy Bar a reality.

“This has been an exciting time for us, and we’re seeing how our students are coming to the Energy Bar and refueling at the end of the day,” said Lamar Principal Cindy Peña.

The school now places three portable bins at the cafeteria during breakfast and lunch, and students have the option to drop in items such as milk or juice boxes, granola bars and even apples that they will not eat in the bins. Students are also encouraged to take items if they want an extra snack.

Whatever is accumulated is taken to the pantry — along with other canned goods and other donated items — and stored in bins and a large fridge. Students who wish to take any items can let their teachers or school staff know, and the pantry can be opened at any time during the day.

“A lot of the students have come up and told us that they no longer go home hungry and they were super appreciative of what we are doing,” Almaraz said. “IB is really challenging so they need energy and the boost.”

The school principal and cafeteria staff were key in helping make the transition they said, getting on board immediately to help collect items that would otherwise go to waste.

The students’ mothers, who also attended the grand opening, helped them organize and retrofit the storage closet to make sure it was ready as soon as possible.

“It’s been a complete success, and the way we measure our success is by seeing that every day that food goes and we have to restock,” said Dora Almaraz, Samantha’s mother. “The need is there and we see it.”

“We don’t want it to only be known as a pantry, but as a place to refuel. It could be for energy during the school day, or students might need to take some food home, so it works for both reasons.”

Pablo Ramirez, Lamar Academy student