Texans running out of food as weather crisis cripples supply chain

A Fiesta grocery store in South Austin saw a shortage of some goods as customers stocked up early in the week. (Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune)

The state’s week of weather hell started with a deadly 133-car pileup outside of Fort Worth. A winter storm unlike any Texas has ever seen quickly followed, and seven days later, millions are without power and reliable water.

And now Texans are running out of food. From farm to table, freezing temperatures and power outages are crippling the supply chain that people rely on for food every day.

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Across the state, people are using up supplies they had stockpiled, and losing more as items start to spoil in dark refrigerators. Some are storing their remaining rations in coolers outside, and trips to the grocery store often do little to replenish pantries.

“It was out of meat, eggs and almost all milk before I left,” Cristal Porter, an Austin resident, said about her local Target which she visited Monday. “Lines were wrapped around the store when we arrived … Shelves were almost fully cleared for potatoes, meat, eggs and some dairy.”

Two days later, one of Porter’s neighbors went to that same Target, and the store was completely out of food, with no sign of additional shipments arriving or employees restocking shelves.

With grocery stores across the state shuttered for lack of power, supermarkets that remain open have seen supplies dwindle, shortages that ripple over to food pantries that count on grocery store surplus to keep their own shelves stocked.

Meanwhile, fruit and vegetable crops in the Rio Grande Valley have frozen over in what The Produce News described as a “Valentine’s Day produce massacre.” School districts from Fort Worth to Houston have halted meal distributions to students for the next several days, and Texas Department of Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said dairy farmers around the state are pouring $8 million worth of milk down the drain every day because they can't get it to dairies.

Celia Cole, the CEO of hunger-relief organization Feeding Texas, said that so far, eight food banks have asked the state for extra help feeding their communities. Several food banks affiliated with Feeding Texas have also started providing food supplies to emergency warming shelters in the state’s major cities. Wednesday afternoon, the Central Food Bank of Texas cancelled its deliveries scheduled for Thursday in Austin and Rockdale.

“The Food Bank’s fleet, equipment, facilities, and operations have been adversely impacted by the extremely low temperatures, and hazardous road conditions are hindering our staff and volunteers from getting to our building safely,” the organization announced in a media alert. “These conditions are also keeping us from distributing food safely.”

Food pantries also rely on donations from retail stores and grocery chains like Kroger and H-E-B, so when shelves run bare at the stores, there is less to share with the food pantries, Cole added.

For Texas residents, disruptions to the food supply chain, often combined with continued power outages, mean eating non-perishable canned goods or leftover items like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Porter has used a camping stove to make hot meals since losing her power, while others have resorted to heating their food in the fireplace. Andrez Rodriguez in Mission told The Texas Tribune that he hasn’t had power for over 80 consecutive hours now, and had to throw out most of the supplies left in his fridge before going to his brother’s home for a warm meal.

“I only come to sleep at my house to make sure nothing gets stolen,” Rodriguez said.

Residents around the state have also taken to social media to share their stories about struggling to find food or an open grocery store. Wes Wilson, a producer for KXAN News in Austin, tweeted a video of the line for fast food takeout in downtown Austin Wednesday afternoon and said “there is a significant food shortage in this city right now.”

Meanwhile, officials said Wednesday that disruptions to the state’s long-term food supply could present even more problems. Miller said livestock growers across Texas are out of feed, while a lack of available natural gas has caused some chickens and calves to freeze to death.

“All of the milk processing plants are full, they can’t get enough electricity to run, and if they could, they can’t get enough natural gas to pasteurize the milk,” Miller said. “So grocery store shelves are basically empty. There’s no dairy products flowing to Kroger or H-E-B or places like that, so we’re as bad as it was when COVID hit, could possibly get worse.”

Citrus and vegetable farms in the Rio Grande Valley also anticipate massive losses. Dale Murden, president of Texas Citrus Mutual, said 60% of the region’s grapefruit crop and 100% of the late orange crop will be lost. With the area producing 230,000 tons of grapefruit per year, farmers in the Valley are expecting to lose an estimated 138,000 tons of that crop.

There are also 40 different vegetable varieties grown in the area, including cilantro, kale and dill. Those will be affected by the storm, as well.

“I'd say if you’re looking for Texas citrus, [the effect] is going to be immediate,” Murden said. “If you’re looking for Texas vegetables it’s going to be immediate.”

Between the current strain on grocery stores and the potential for huge damages to the state’s agricultural sector, this storm could hamper food access for weeks to come. Miller and Cole emphasized that it’s impossible to know the extent of the losses until power returns, but the food supply will continue to drain unless farmers and stores get electricity back soon.

“They’ve been very, very badly hit – the agricultural sector, generally – by the pandemic, so they’re already struggling,” Cole said. “And so I think although the impact if the power gets restored quickly might not be huge in absolute terms, it’s hitting a sector that’s already reeling from the pandemic.”

Disclosure: Feeding Texas, H-E-B and Texas Citrus Mutual have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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