SANGER — A local ministry and Sanger schools risked saying yes to an idea.

Within a year, that “yes” turned into a grocery store inside Linda Tutt High School and Community Strong Farms, a community garden that will stock the store’s refrigerator with fresh fruit and vegetables (and, eventually, food pantries around the county).

“I say yes to everything,” said Paul Juarez, the executive director of First Refuge Ministries, a Denton-based nonprofit that offers food, medical and dental care and counseling services to low-income people and families. “Someone asks if they can donate, I say yes. If someone wants a newspaper article, I say yes. That’s how I do things in a nonprofit: Say yes to everything.”

Planting a seed

Juarez got the idea to put a grocery store inside of a public school a few years ago, and experimented with a model in Denton. He said the model suffered from a lack of continuity, was taken over by a nonprofit, and evolved into a traditional food pantry.

He didn’t forget about the idea, though, and when First Refuge was applying for a grant through Texas Health Resources, the idea came up.

“One of the things Texas Health wanted was [something] innovative,” Juarez said. “That was a key thing, and [Sanger Mayor] Thomas Muir said, ‘Well, Paul built a grocery store inside a school. We could do that here in Sanger.’”

So First Refuge included a potential school grocery store in the grant, and received the first of two THRIVE grants from the faith-based nonprofit hospital system’s community impact grant program. First Refuge and its partner organizations — Sanger ISD, the city of Sanger, First Baptist Church of Sanger and New Life Church — eventually received two grants totally more than $590,000.

The first grant gave the partners until Dec. 31 last year to build a grocery store at Sanger ISD’s Linda Tutt High, which includes high school students, special education students and the district’s alternative education program for students who have violated the district’s code of conduct.

Additional grant through Denton County’s administration of CARES Act money allowed First Refuge, which had drastically increased its food distribution during the pandemic, to request money to update the nonprofit’s refrigeration. Juarez decided to apply for the funds, and when the nonprofit received the grant, it put two commercial refrigerators and one freezer in the school grocery store.

“At first we were going to put shelving in and do dry goods,” Juarez said. “But with the refrigeration, we can bring produce into the school.”

Ann Hughes, a former longtime principal at Linda Tutt, volunteers as a sort of coordinator for the grocery store partnership.

“It was a small part of a larger grant,” Hughes said. “It was like $10,000 of a $300,000 grant. It was almost like, how do we spend the last little bit of that larger grant? This is how.”

Anthony Love, the principal at Linda Tutt, was in his first year at the school when First Refuge and the Sanger mayor started considering an in-school grocery store. When he was presented with the idea, he said he was interested.

“Dr. Hughes said, ‘What do you think about putting a grocery store in your school?’ It probably took three seconds to say yes,” Love said. “We have a lot of students who do receive free and reduced lunch here, and we also have several students who get the Friday backpack program. Some of the students refuse to take the backpacks.”

Love said he thinks the stigma of needing the backpack stocked with food keeps those students from taking them. But Love was also coming into the district as the city’s Super Saver IGA grocery store was facing closure to make way for the expansion of Interstate 35, leaving Sanger without a grocery store for the next several years.

Love said an in-school grocery store offers students and their families a different way to get food into their homes, Love said.

Tackling food insecurity without shame

When COVID restrictions ease, students will “shop” in the grocery store with points they earn through the THRIVE resiliency program. The program assesses how much each student has been affected by adverse childhood experiences, and then teaches them how to cope with trauma.

A resiliency program at Sanger ISD, also called THRIVE, teaches students how to process trauma and work through it.

“Adverse childhood experiences can be a lot of different things,” said Danelle Parker, Texas Health Resources’s director of community health improvement for Denton, Wise and Collin counties.

Parker said for some students, adverse experiences are abuse or neglect, and for others, it’s the death of a parent, a divorce in the family or living in a single-parent home, where poverty can cause everything from homelessness to hunger.

“The studies have shown that 1 in 4 kids are going to experience adverse childhood events, and some of those kids will experience more than one,” she said. “Food insecurity is a piece of it.”

In the THRIVE program, students earn points for acts of kindness and adopting healthful habits.

“The grocery store was able to give these kids a place to act out the lessons they learn,” Parker said. “The grocery store is a way to find that you aren’t alone. Some kids in the resiliency program have said that they never knew they weren’t alone.”

To get food to students and families while COVID restrictions are still in place, Love and Juarez said the store is open after school hours once a week, and parents come to the school for a food distribution outside on the campus. A handful of students are volunteering, he said. They stock the shelves and track inventory.

“We’ve also got some students who love to track expiration dates on the food, too,” Juarez said.

When restrictions lift, Love said the grocery store will be open during school hours and students will be able to shop with their points and take food home with them. Juarez said some students have asked to take food for hungry neighbors, and he falls back on his habit of saying yes.

Growing health for a town

The second grant has already started a community garden modeled on Shiloh Field, one of the biggest and most productive community gardens in the country.

New Life Church in Sanger donated about 14 acres to the garden, and Matt Basham, a member of First Baptist Church of Denton, has started preparing the soil for spring planting.

Basham and his wife were at a First Refuge gala when Juarez mentioned his dream for a community garden in a presentation.

“For me, everything is about fluidity and magnetism,” Basham said. “I got into this the way a lot of people get involved with First Refuge. I’m a Christian. I go where the Holy Spirit leads.”

The Holy Spirit led Basham to approach Juarez and offer to talk about the community garden idea, as he’s a certified horticulturalist and landscaper with construction experience. Now Basham is developing Community Strong Farms and preparing to work with the community and Sanger ISD.

“When I saw the presentation, I immediately knew this was something I wanted to do,” he said. “Anyone can put seeds in the ground. Water and pest management — well, that’s something else. I can bring those things to this.”

Basham said he’s preparing long rows and drip tape irrigation on the farm. He’s also spearheading the construction of a covered learning area that will accommodate Sanger ISD students who will eventually be able to earn class credit on the farm, as well as volunteers from the community who want to plant, weed and harvest peppers, squash and melons.

“I can see us letting people take some of what they grow home with them,” he said. “I think that’s part of the plan. But really, the Bible says that you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach him to fish, and he can feed himself for life. That’s what this is.”

Basham is also leading a project to drill a 600-foot well to have a water source on site.

Love said the school’s staff will partner with the garden through the district’s agriculture program, and that the staff is already looking at a curriculum the district can use to join the hands-on portion to the classroom.

“It’s unique to have a faith-based organization working with a school. But we have a district-level champion working with us in Tony here,” Juarez said, pointing to Love.

The grocery store portion of the project got international attention, with mentions on The Drew Barrymore Show and The New York Times. Hughes said there has been a lot of buy-in locally, which is where it likely matters the most.

“A lot of the staff volunteer,” she said. “If Tony and I can’t be here on a Thursday night [for the grocery store food distribution night], the staff steps in. We know that Paul and First Refuge are exploding in what they’re doing. They’re not going anywhere.”

LUCINDA BREEDING-GONZALES can be reached at 940-566-6877 and via Twitter at @LBreedingDRC.