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Student-run free grocery store helps feed Texas town's hungry

The idea is to provide students with job skills, and at the same time help students, staff and community residents who are in need.

SANGER, Texas — Traditional school stores might offer snacks and knickknacks, school gear and notebooks — but the one at Linda Tutt High School in Sanger, Texas, has a very different inventory and clientele.

At Linda Tutt you can get everything from produce, milk and eggs to pasta, peanut butter and canned goods to dishwasher soap and laundry detergent. Students and staff can shop there, but on Tuesdays, the store is open to the community.

And it’s all free.

“I like seeing their smiles, seeing how appreciative they are, and knowing that they are thankful that we’re doing something like this,” said Hunter Weertman, a 16-year-old junior who stocks shelves and takes inventory at the store housed in an unused art room. It has been open since November.

The idea is to provide students with job skills, and at the same time help students, staff and local residents who are in need. And the store has one more purpose: teaching the youngsters the value of giving back to their community.

“I’ve really seen the students take pride in working in the store,” principal Anthony Love said. “They’re excited about coming to school. They’re excited about helping in the grocery store and just being a part of it.”

Residents who shop at the store are assigned a number of points — the larger the family, the more points they receive and the more merchandise they can “buy.” There's no in-person shopping because of the pandemic, so instead they fill out a list and students bring their groceries to their cars.

About 130 families have used the store, Love said.

Each week, the store’s staffers package groceries for students who qualify for the Friday Backpack Program because their families need additional food for the weekend.

In addition to family points, students earn points for their work in the store or for doing other tasks at the school such as gardening, mentoring elementary schoolchildren or helping in the cafeteria. And they can garner even more points for outstanding classroom performance or being kind to others.

Credit: AP
In this photo provided by Anthony Love, food and toiletries line the shelves of Linda Tutt High School's student-led free grocery store on Nov. 20, 2020, in Sanger, Texas. (Anthony Love via AP)

The town of about 8,000 people northwest of Dallas knows poverty — more than 43 percent of the district’s students are considered economically disadvantaged. It also has had to deal with the coronavirus; the opening of the store was delayed by a month after Love was treated at a hospital for COVID-19.

The idea came from Paul Juarez, the executive director of First Refuge Ministries, a nonprofit that funds the project through a grant from the faith-based medical group Texas Health Resources. Juarez, who began to work as a package clerk at a grocery store at age 16 and moved up to management, said he has been getting calls from schools across the United States.

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“I’ve been just talking to everybody, from Delaware and New York, New Jersey, Florida, all the way to Juneau, Alaska,” he said. “I probably talked to about 50 or 60 people that want to actually do this in their school districts.”

Credit: AP
In this provided by Anthony Love, Hunter Weertman, 16, left, works alongside a fellow student to stock the refrigerator in the student-led free grocery store at Linda Tutt High School on Nov. 20, 2020, in Sanger, Texas.

Hunter Weertman said one reason the store is important is to show “the good that has come out during the pandemic.”

Weertman, who is autistic, was beaten by other students at his previous school, said his mother, according to his mother, Sila Carr. She says his work at the store has helped him regain his confidence.

“He’s just learned that being kind does pay off," she said. “The school has brought him out of his shell to be more open.”