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Free grocery store opens in Texas school district with high number of economically disadvantaged students

"If we can make our food pantries look like a grocery store" and give people a card to shop with as they would at any other place, then "we can keep dignity in people," Paul Juarez says.
Image: Principal Anthony Love
Anthony Love, principal of Linda Tutt High School in Sanger, Texas.Courtesy Kali Wood / Linda Tutt High School

This month, the principal of Linda Tutt High School in the small town of Sanger, Texas, said he was approached by an eighth grader eager to share that he had bought a three-in-one men's shampoo, conditioner and body wash.

"The first thing he did was he said: 'Hey. Look in my hair,'" the principal, Anthony Love, recalled in an interview Tuesday.

"And so I looked at it, and it looked clean," Love said. "But he was excited about it because it was the first time he's ever had his own shampoo."

The student, who lives with his mother and sister, said he had avoided using their shampoo because of the smell, Love said.

But he was finally able to get his own shampoo, as well as food, at a new student-run grocery store on the school's campus where students can buy food and other essentials, without money.

"It makes you reflect back on yourself and some of the things that we take for granted, and it helps you put life in perspective," Love said of the student encounter.

The store, which opened in November, makes canned goods, produce, laundry detergent, soap and other products available free of charge to students and faculty members of the school district and the 9,000 residents of Sanger, about 50 miles north of Dallas.

Believed to be the first of its kind at a high school, the on-site store was the brainchild of Paul Juarez, executive director of First Refuge Ministries, one of the operation's sponsors. Juarez, whose nonprofit provides free medical, dental, mental health counseling and food, worked in the grocery business for about 20 years. It was where he got his first job as a package clerk at age 16.

"If we can make our food pantries look like a grocery store" and give people a card to shop with as they would at any other place, Juarez said, then "we can keep dignity in people."

Juarez's idea came to life with a grant from Texas Health Resources, which identified Sanger as a food-insecure area.

About 43 percent of students in the Sanger Independent School District are considered economically disadvantaged. About 2,750 students are enrolled in the school district, 3.6 percent of whom are considered homeless, Love said.

"That was before Covid happened," he said. "So I can only imagine that number is a lot higher."

The store is open three days a week to students and district employees and on Tuesday evenings to the rest of the community.

A student-run grocery store offers free groceries to students in need at Linda Tutt High School in Sanger, Texas.Courtesy Anthony Love / Linda Tutt High School

Instead of money, shoppers use points. All students get points based on the sizes of their families. A small family — with three or fewer people in the household — is allotted 40 points, and a large family with six or more people gets 65 points. The bigger the family, the more points. The points are replenished every week.

Items in the grocery store cost one to three points.

"They're able to purchase a lot of items with those points," Love said.

Students can earn more points through positive office referrals from staff members for "outstanding" performance in the classroom or around the school building, Love said. Students can also earn points through on-campus jobs, such as in the school garden or as mentors or assistants.

Love said the school requires students to apply for the jobs to gain real-world experience and learn responsibility.

"There's a job application that they have to fill out. They have to have two references. They have to maintain passing grades," he said.

Juarez said the point system aims to prevent anyone from feeling embarrassed about needing assistance.

"It won't embarrass them that they have to — from time to time — go to a food pantry," he said.

The high school also partnered with the grocery company Albertsons to open the store, which is run entirely by students who stock shelves, maintain inventory, check out customers and bag groceries. The store employs five students, including three store managers.

One of the managers, Preston Westbrook, an 11th grader at Linda Tutt High School, said the work has been rewarding.

"It makes me feel better that they're feeling good and not having the life struggles trying to figure out where they're going to get their food or the money to be able to do this," Westbrook told NBC Dallas-Fort Worth.

Juarez said some of the $300,000 in grant money has been used to hire a counselor and a nurse, as well as a resource navigator who meets with parents at First Refuge Ministries in Sanger and helps them navigate how to get resources they need.

Some people online have criticized the store's point payment system for trading needed aid for good acts. Love said some people have asked about the point system. His answer, he said, is: No one is turned away.

"If anybody needs something, I will go above and beyond myself," he said. "And I would even deliver the groceries to their house if I needed to."

Anyone who criticizes the program doesn't understand it, Juarez said.

"Everybody gets points," Juarez said. "If you don't want to use your points, you can donate your points."

Love said he has been "very intentional and strategic" by requiring students to go through the grocery store.

"If everybody's doing it, it takes away the embarrassment," he said.

Juarez said that he has spoken to school officials in other states, including California, Delaware, North Carolina and Oregon, who want to follow the approach to addressing food insecurity and that he has offered his assistance because he wants it to take off.

"If the school district can be so important like that, we can change a community," he said. "And if we can change a community, we can change an area. And then, if we change an area, we can change the state. If we can change the state, we can change the country. If we can change the country, we can change the world."