North Texas is thawing, but hunger remains as grocery stores and food banks struggle to meet demand

Alicia Marquin tried to save as much food from her refrigerator as she could this week as temperatures dropped and snow accumulated outside her West Dallas home.

Sandwich meat was fed to her husband and 82-year-old father. She put food on the verge of spoiling out into the snow to stay cold until wild animals claimed it.

Without power for two days and snowed in for two more, the 52-year-old ventured onto roads of melting ice on Friday only to find grocery store shelves bare.

An Oncor Electric Delivery crew worked to restoring power to an Odessa neighborhood on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021.

“No bread, no milk, nothing,” Marquin said.

Melting ice across North Texas gave way to hungry residents looking to restock refrigerators and pantries, even while many in areas such as West Dallas’ Ledbetter Eagle Ford neighborhood still struggled with intermittent power and lack of water.

Long lines of cars rolled into grocery distribution sites from Plano to South Dallas while supermarket employees worked to restock shelves with high-demand staples after the region’s food system was crippled by power outages and frozen roads that have tested Texas’ ability to care for itself in extreme conditions.

Grocery stores were much better stocked on Saturday than in previous days, but store officials say it could be days or even weeks before supplies return to normal.

Thawing ice only exacerbated the problem as freezing pipes burst and left residents at homes and apartment complexes without working water with which to cook, bathe and flush toilets.

Volunteers distribute food to community members at Ledbetter Eagle Ford Community Pantry housed at at Iglesia Bautista El Calvario in West Dallas, on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.
Volunteers distribute food to community members at Ledbetter Eagle Ford Community Pantry housed at at Iglesia Bautista El Calvario in West Dallas, on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.(Lola Gomez / Staff Photographer)

Marquin was in one of more than 100 cars that lined the street outside Ledbetter Eagle Ford Community Pantry in West Dallas where volunteers handed out burgers, sandwiches, water, chips, toilet paper and blankets. Children got candy, and florists even donated roses to try to bring some post-Valentine cheer.

Henry Martinez, head of the neighborhood’s community group, said that power was still intermittent on many streets and that a lot of residents lacked water service.

“The priority is really looking for plumbers,” Martinez said. “There’s only a certain amount of plumbers, and that’s hurting a lot of people. People can’t take care of themselves if they don’t have water.”

Inside the food pantry, which is connected to the Iglesia Bautista El Calvario church, pipes were busted and leaders were trying to figure out if they needed to hold Sunday services outside with snow still on the ground.

Guadale Lupe (left) and Yajaira Cantu picked up food from volunteers at Ledbetter Eagle Ford Community Pantry, housed at at Iglesia Bautista El Calvario in West Dallas.
Guadale Lupe (left) and Yajaira Cantu picked up food from volunteers at Ledbetter Eagle Ford Community Pantry, housed at at Iglesia Bautista El Calvario in West Dallas.(Lola Gomez / Staff Photographer)

Many people showed up at food pantries and distribution sites only after trips to grocery stores failed.

Walmart closed more than 500 stores at points this week, and at other times stores operated only a few hours at a time. Since stores have reopened, deliveries have been inconsistent, revealing cracks in a modern, just-in-time food operation that can fail when food manufacturers, distributors and grocery stores are unable to work because of cold, snow and power outages.

“As you would anticipate demand going into the storms was high and logistics after snowfall in areas not used to experiencing this type of event has been challenging,” said Walmart spokesman Scott Pope. “We’re working hard to keep the shelves stocked, but … road conditions can make that a challenge.”

Options early Saturday were limited at the Walmart off Cockrell Hill Road near Interstate 30.

Milk was scant. Lunchmeat was scarce. At one point in the morning, only nine cartons of eggs remained.

Still, JaQuauvian Bivins said he considered himself lucky as he loaded groceries into this car Saturday morning.

“I’m just glad it’s over,” Bivins said of this week’s winter storm.

Though he never lost power, he still needed to stock up on groceries. With nothing else available, Bivins said he opted for almond milk instead of regular milk, and took whatever eggs he could find.

Although a dairy truck was seen around the back of the store and workers were unloading cheese and other products, Bivins said he didn’t want to wait. He was going to try his luck at another Walmart — about 10 miles away.

Kroger stores were busy with customers even though some shipments were delayed, said company spokeswoman April Martin.

“Business is currently very brisk,” she said. “Supply is slow in recovery however, we anticipate we will regain normal inventory levels over the next number of days to a few weeks.”

In an effort to restore meat supplies quickly, Gov. Greg Abbott on Saturday issued a temporary waiver allowing for the state health department to cover the cost of overtime for meat inspectors for one week.

Volunteers haul boxes of food into Lakewest Senior Housing near Singleton Boulevard and Hampton Road in West Dallas on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.
Volunteers haul boxes of food into Lakewest Senior Housing near Singleton Boulevard and Hampton Road in West Dallas on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.(Lola Gomez / Staff Photographer)

“These waivers will ensure meat inspectors are compensated for their time without burdening meat-processing and slaughterhouse establishments with extensive overtime costs throughout the next week,” Abbott said in a written statement. “Meat inspectors are crucial to restoring our meat supply in our state, and I thank them for working around the clock for their fellow Texans.”

The North Texas Food Bank was beginning its first major food distribution events on Saturday after spending most of the week supplying warming stations for those most urgently in need, spokeswoman Anna Kurian said. Many residents who use food pantries are just now able to travel to pick up food too.

One bright spot is that some companies have been able to donate food that they weren’t able to sell during the winter storms.

Hello Fresh and its regional distributor Grandy Husky gave the North Texas Food Bank about 25,000 meal kits that were set to expire in the coming days after delivery drivers were unable to bring the kits to homes.

Much-needed food was piling up as volunteers brough boxes of meals into the Lakewest Senior Housing complex in West Dallas on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.
Much-needed food was piling up as volunteers brough boxes of meals into the Lakewest Senior Housing complex in West Dallas on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.(Lola Gomez / Staff Photographer)

“We had a warehouse of food that wasn’t going to be able to go out,” said Grand Husky president, Dalpreet Sooda. “We didn’t want it to go to waste, and this area has been hurting.”

West Dallas community leader Debbie Solis spent the week coordinating food and water deliveries like a field commander. She cajoled wealthy private donors to provide hot meals. She secured hotel vouchers for people needing to leave their homes. She tried to provide names of plumbers to help fix burst pipes.

Her big worry on Saturday: food shortages.

“We are in dire need of food,” said Solis, family and community services manager at Voice of Hope Ministries. “Our people can’t go far. They go to Walmart, and they can’t get bread. They are not asking for much. Bread and tortillas and whatever they can find.”

From left, volunteers Ellie Donahoe, 15, Caroline Vallard, 15, and Jullian Miller, 15, distribute food aid to the community at Ledbetter food pantry in Iglesia El Calvario as temperatures start to rise and the snow accumulated after the passage of snowstorm Uri begins to melt in Dallas on Friday, February 19, 2021. (Lola Gomez/The Dallas Morning News)
From left, volunteers Ellie Donahoe, 15, Caroline Vallard, 15, and Jullian Miller, 15, distribute food aid to the community at Ledbetter food pantry in Iglesia El Calvario as temperatures start to rise and the snow accumulated after the passage of snowstorm Uri begins to melt in Dallas on Friday, February 19, 2021. (Lola Gomez/The Dallas Morning News)(Lola Gomez / Staff Photographer)

Solis was a hero after securing a supply of fine sirloin. It made enough hamburgers to feed 80 people. She rattled off the names of restaurants that have come to the rescue.

Many volunteers who showed up at food events weren’t hungry but had been moved by the week’s harsh weather to lend others a helping hand. For the Ledbetter Eagle Ford Community Center, teen volunteers from packed food bags and made soup. Many purchased burgers from Braum’s and sandwiches from Jimmy John’s to pass out to people that have largely been without hot food for days.

“When it was cold and we were cold, we knew there were people out there that had it worse,” said Rachel Harper, a 15-year-old from University Park who came with her mom Courtney and 11-year-old sister Charlotte.

At the Village at Lakewest senior complex, Ann Harrington pushed a shopping cart of boxed food. She planned to deliver the meals to those in need herself.

Electricity had gone out at the complex and a water main had broken earlier in the week. Harrington, who said she grew up in West Dallas’ segregated housing projects, spent one night in a warming bus to get through the cold.

Nearby, tax attorney Mark Melton was getting tenants to help with deliveries of 10 pallets of boxed meals to the complex. The winter storms hit West Dallas hard, Melton said. but “this is better than the rest of the days.”

Allen Bonilla drove his car slowly and yelled through a bullhorn at folks: “Y’all need water?”

Bonilla said he was delivering bottled water to those in need after buying it with money he’d raised.

Staff writer Maria Halkias contributed to this report.