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Winter Weather Crisis Is Also a Food Crisis

Widespread power outages and freezing weather leave many in the U.S. without food and water

Long line of people outside in a shopping plaza.
Customers wait in line to enter an H-E-B supermarket in Round Rock, Texas, on February 16.
Photo by SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP via Getty Images

An Arctic blast swept in ice, snow, and freezing temperatures across nearly three-quarters of the lower 48 states starting on the weekend, burying much of the continental U.S. in a winter weather crisis made worse by massive power outages and other infrastructure problems in areas unprepared for these kinds of extreme conditions. There have been reports of people left without heat, running water, and food, unable to salvage perishable items in their fridge, cook food as a result of no electricity, or pick up regular meal distribution thanks to weather disruptions stretching several days.

In Texas, one of the hardest-hit states due to record-breaking cold temperatures and a widespread power grid problem, agriculture commissioner Sid Miller issued a red alert for the state’s agriculture and food supply chain. Farmers and ranchers fear their livestock will die from exposure to the cold or from a lack of feed and drinkable water. Dairy farmers have had to dump millions of dollars’ worth of milk because processing plants have no power.

Those supply chain effects will be felt in grocery stores, some of which are dealing with their own power outage problems, as well as staffing shortages because employees aren’t able to safely get to the stores. Some locations have cut their hours, leaving customers to scramble to wait in line with the hopes of being able to get their hands on any groceries, despite slim pickings in many aisles. Hungry customers also flocked to other food sites, including fast-food restaurants and gas stations. In Houston, a Burger King drew a huge line of customers looking for a rare hot meal, with more than 50 cars waiting at one point. Others queued up for food bank distributions, with one food bank in Chesterfield County, Virginia, dispensing food to over 350 residents in one night.

In many places, much like in the early days of the pandemic, community-based giving and mutual aid are what’s keeping people fed, and many are handing out hot meals and supplies that can help keep people — including unhoused populations and others among the most vulnerable to the winter weather — alive during this crisis. Some restaurants in storm-stricken cities opened their doors to serve as impromptu warming stations, offering shelter from freezing temperatures, a place to charge phones and laptops, stoves to warm up cold rations, food and drink, and even free coats and blankets for people in need. Other food businesses, facing power outages, set out all their baked goods and coffee free for the taking. In Portland, Oregon, mutual aid activists clashed with supermarket employees who threw away thousands of perishable items after being unable to guarantee their food safety during a power outage. Those residents were initially prevented from reaching the dumpsters by employees and later police, but eventually salvaged some of the food, which included packaged meats, cheese, pickles, and juice, and distributed it in local free fridges.

In Texas, power and water outages are still ongoing, and many expect that disruptions to the food supply chain will limit groceries on store shelves in the coming days. To find out how to feed people in need at this time, check out guides from Eater Dallas and Eater Austin.