As the need for food assistance increases throughout the country a non-profit organization in Denton, Texas has found a way to help people in the heart of their communities. First Refuge Ministries has developed a model that puts a small grocery store in schools so that local families who may be struggling to put food on the table can simply visit and “shop” for what they need.
The concept is the brainchild of First Refuge’s Executive Director, Paul Juarez. Juarez grew up poor himself and remembers his mother’s reliance on their local food pantry.
“I do know what poverty looks like and I experienced poverty,” he tells Parentology. Juarez eventually grew up, escaped poverty, and had a very successful career in the grocery business. He combined his knowledge of the grocery industry with his desire to give back to the community and the idea was born.
What makes the school grocery store different than a traditional food bank? “If you keep dignity in people when you’re serving them then they don’t feel lesser than everybody else,” Juarez says. Setting up the grocery store model allows the parents and even students shopping in the store to have a retail experience just like everyone else.
How First Refuge Works
The store is open to anyone. The current model utilizes a points system, but the specifics of how things run will be left up to each individual school as time goes on.
Students and families are allocated points for volunteering at the store, or simply because school faculty and staff members may have identified them as needing a little extra assistance. Those points are then used to “purchase” anything they need from the grocery store. “It is all about feeding people, but it’s feeding people in a dignified way and it is actually about teaching them life skills as well,” Juarez says.
Indeed, the students take part in ordering and monitoring inventory, and keeping First Refuge stocked.
“This gives them job experience to be able to get a job, but it teaches them so much more — being able to do customer service, being able to order, take inventory. There’s a lot of jobs in the grocery business, so to be able to do all that stuff, it gives them valuable tools that they can use in life,” he explains. Currently Juarez is training the staff himself, but eventually he says his involvement won’t be necessary. “This has always been meant that the students, the faculty, they’re the ones that run it and it will be self-sustainable.”
When asked if he hopes to expand this idea to other communities in Texas or even throughout the country, Juarez answers a resounding, “Absolutely. We already had a vision to go national with the services we provide.” The idea of people volunteering in their local community to have a direct impact on their fellow residents is something that Juarez believes is powerful and can be adapted anywhere in the US where the need for food assistance has increased.
“Right now the need is bigger than ever,” he says. “In the last nine months, we’ve increased five-fold in how many people we’re serving and feeding.”
Juarez has created a model that can be easily replicated anywhere in the U.S. with just a few key ingredients: a champion of the idea who has the time, willingness, and patience to make it happen. With that, Juarez and his team are ready and willing to help them get an in-school grocery store up and running.
“I’ve talked to about 60-70 people at this point. If they’re willing to move forward, we have a sheet and instructions on how to do this if they want to do it by themselves,” he says, adding that the key is finding local organizations or foundations to help fund the store; it only takes around $20,000. “All we do is help them locate organizations that are in their community that are willing to fund this.” Once funding is secure, Juarez says it’s just a matter of days to get a store up and running with refrigeration and shelving.
The grocery store is just one of the services First Refuge offers to families. The location also provides free medical, dental and counseling services. Juarez believes that the best way to help those in need is through their local communities.
“If we’re able to reach the community through these school pantries then we get access, through trust, to the whole family that needs medical services and counseling services and just needs to be restored.”
If you’re interested in learning more about starting a school grocery store, or you would like to donate, visit the First Refuge Ministries website.
First Refuge Ministries — Sources
Paul Juarez, Executive Director, First Refuge Ministries