(11/17/23) BATON ROUGE, La. — When Elidsabel Martinez started a new job at Baton Rouge’s Tara High School a year ago, she was quick to take note of some of the challenges being faced by her students day in and day out.
“Our students have a lot of necessities,” said Martinez, who teaches English as a second language, or ESL. Topping that list, she said, is food.
She saw teachers spending money out of their own pockets to help feed hungry students. She and another ESL teacher, Alejandra Macedo, decided something needed to be done — like setting up a food pantry in the school.
Now, their vision is reality.
With Macedo standing nearby, Martinez cut a red ribbon Nov. 16 officially opening Tara’s food pantry. They were joined by school administrators, LSU AgCenter nutrition staff and representatives of the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank — all of whom played a role in getting the pantry up and running.
Students will be able to visit the pantry weekly and take items such as canned meats and vegetables, dry beans, rice and packaged snacks home to their families. Thanks to funding from Humana for refrigeration, students can even pick up frozen foods.
The food bank will keep the pantry shelves stocked, and organizers of the initiative are hoping to collaborate with local grocery stores and other partners to secure additional items through donations.
They have plans to eventually open the pantry, which will operate year-round, to the public.
“We know there is a food insecurity problem here — not just here in this school, but in East Baton Rouge Parish,” said Dewanna Drewery, a regional coordinator with the AgCenter who often visits Tara to teach nutrition classes through the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, or EFNEP.
Before she came to work at the AgCenter in January 2022, Drewery was a teacher at Tara, where much of the student population comes from low-income families. Like Martinez and Macedo, Drewery witnessed firsthand how hunger affects students’ education and overall well-being.
“You can look at a child and tell whether or not they’ve had something to eat. Sometimes, a child will approach you and say, ‘Man, I’m hungry,’” she recalled. “I kept a little refrigerator in my office. If a student told me they were hungry, I would give them a bowl of cereal or a granola bar.”
In her new role at the AgCenter, Drewery’s job is to teach about the importance of eating healthful foods.
“But at the same time,” she said, “I want these kids to be able to choose foods — period.”
KiEtha Gage, agency relations and programs manager with the food bank, said the new pantry will make it easier to get food to those who need it.
“We’re excited because this is one of the only school pantries that is open in East Baton Rouge Parish,” Gage said. “It’s easily accessible for families because the students are already going here, so we’re hoping that’s going to aid our families in getting the food they need.”
Ariane Dent, the food bank’s programs coordinator, said the timing of the ribbon cutting — a week before Thanksgiving — was significant.
“We thought this would be the perfect time,” she said, adding that many students depend on school meals and do not have reliable access to food when they are at home during holiday breaks.
At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Martinez beamed as she did the honors with a pair of scissors fetched from the school’s supply room. Her colleagues cheered as the ribbon fell to the floor.
“We are so thankful for the work that Mrs. Martinez and Ms. Macedo have put into starting the food pantry for our students and community,” said Jessica Mitchell, assistant principal. “We appreciate the partnership between all of the organizations that have made this possible.”
Colleagues and visitors cheer after Elidsabel Martinez, center, a teacher at Tara High School, cut a ribbon marking the official opening of a food pantry at the school Nov. 16. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter
The shelves of Tara High School’s new food pantry are stocked with an array of dry goods. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter
Jessica Mitchell, assistant principal of Tara High School, at right, speaks during a ceremony that marked the official opening of a food pantry at the school Nov. 16. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter