Sanger, Texas is a small town of about 9,000 residents situated between Dallas and the Oklahoma state boarder. Texas Health Resources has identified Sanger as a food-insecure area, and of the 2,750 students enrolled in the school district, 43% are considered “economically disadvantaged,” with 3.6 of the student population identified as homeless, according to Linda Tutt High School principal Anthony Love in speaking with TODAY.
What’s more, these were pre-Covid numbers, so it is reasonable to assume there has been an unfavorable shift if the statistics over the past year of pandemic and shutdowns.
But a grant from Texas Health Resources as well as partnerships within the community is tackling the issue of food scarcity in a way that allows the needy to retain their dignity. One of those partnership is with First Refuge Ministries, and it’s Executive Director, Paul Juarez, had a unique way of utilizing the $300,000 grant awarded to the school district.
Juarez had the idea of opening a grocery store-style food pantry for the community, which would allow students, faculty, and anyone in the community to “shop” with actual cards, but by using a point system instead of money. This allows the customers to “pay” for their groceries, which in turn helps them retain their dignity while receiving charity.
“It won’t embarrass them that they have to — from time to time — go to a food pantry,” he said.
Points are awarded based on family size, with small families of up to three people being awarded 40 points, and large families of six or more individuals are given 60 points, with points being replenished every week. Nothing in the store costs over three points.
Students have the opportunity to earn more points by applying for campus jobs, or through teacher referrals for “outstanding” performance in the classroom.
The “grocery store”—first of its kind to appear on a high school campus—was established in November and is open three days a week. Because of their partnerships with local businesses such as Albertson’s grocery, the store is able to provide everything from nonperishable items, fresh produce, and hygiene products.
In its two months of operation the store has already had a visible impact on student morale. Principal Love shares an interaction he had with an 8th grade student who approached him and excitedly showed him the shampoo he had “purchased” from the store.
“The first thing he did was he said: ‘Hey. Look in my hair,'” love explained. “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.”
Something else that makes this food pantry unique is that it’s managed by student employees who handle everything from stocking shelves to bagging groceries.
“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,” 11th grader Preston Westbrook who serves as one of the store’s managers told NBC Dallas-Fort Worth.
The employees must fill out an application, provide two references, and maintain their grades in order to be considered for a position.
There have been some critics of the points system, but Mr. Love is quick to explain that no one is ever turned away, and points can even be donated if someone chose to do so.
“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.”
School districts across the country have reached out to the little town of Sanger with inquiries about their novel food pantry model. Mr. Juarez has enthusiastically offered any assistance he can in getting their unique idea to take off in other districts around the country.
“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.”