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Frozen Lettuce at Hat & Heart Farms | Photo by: Hat & Heart Farm (Official)

How Austin Came Together During Winter Storm Uri

A little over a year ago, Texas began to shut down as we entered the first round of stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic. National supply chains were interrupted, and items such as beef and flour were hard to find. Rising levels of unemployment led many people to experience food insecurity for the first time. These events highlighted the role a strong local food system plays in keeping our community nourished.

Fast-forward one year to February 2021: Winter Storm Uri — marked by record-breaking freezing temperatures, snow, and ice — clobbered Texas, which is still deep in the pandemic. At the peak of the storm, some 4.5 million Texas homes and businesses did not have electricity, and more were also without running water. Weeks after the storm passed, some were (and remain) without access to basic resources like hot running water due to shortages of parts for repairs and infrastructure failures.

Uri hit many Central Texas farmers and ranchers particularly hard. Many lost access to power and water, which caused them to lose both crops and livestock, with estimates exceeding $600 million in losses. According to the 2017 Ag Census, there are 248,416 farms in the 22 counties in the Central Texas region. While some farms were struggling to keep livestock alive without power, others were scrambling to move transplants indoors, while also triple-covering crops and seedlings.

The storm once again crippled our supply chain, leaving grocery store shelves empty and countless Texans with limited access to healthy food. But the storm did not slow down SFC’s Farmers’ Markets. By the end of the wintery week, the snow began to melt, and our community came out to shop from local farmers to meet their essential needs.

When these disasters happened, our community came together in support of each other. Individuals turned to local farmers to keep their families fed, and our farmers worked tirelessly to ensure they could provide this critical support. We also saw many organizations and businesses rally together to provide support in innovative ways. We’re highlighting a few ways our community came together when we needed it the most.

Disaster Response and Relief for Farmers and Ranchers

Foodshed Investors, a local organization that invests in efforts to increase the supply of good local food, conducted a statewide survey to understand the impact of the storm on farmers. Foodshed Investors, SFC, and other organizations are using these results to identify farmers with major infrastructure and repair needs in order to provide support through the farmer and rancher relief fund.

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    Graph and Data Provided by Foodshed Investors

SFC has cultivated more than $26,000 in direct relief to farmers through individual support, in addition to a $50,000 donation from Methodist Healthcare Ministries and a $100,000 grant from Legacy Collective. Much of this funding is going to specifically support BIPOC farmers.

“After the snowstorm came, it put a financial struggle on our farm,” says Kris Olsen from Milagro Farm. “We lost production of eggs, and at the time the snowstorm came in we had just bought a new tractor. I used the check you all gave me to pay my loan on my tractor for the last two months. It was a big step to find a new tractor, and then when I had all that loss, I was really worried about how I was going to cover this new bill... That check helps a lot. I really appreciate the support.”

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Nixta Taqueria co-owners, Sara Mardanbigi and Edgar Rico, by Jessica Attie

Community Members Fill Gaps in Relief Efforts

During the winter storm in Austin, when so many were left without access to basic resources, other players in the local food system stepped up to help. Restaurants opened their doors to provide hot meals to those without food and turned their spaces into resource distribution hubs. Breweries gave out potable water, and community organizers managed mutual aid funds to help Central Texans when existing resources failed to meet the demand caused by the storm.

In the heart of East Austin, Nixta Taqueria co-owners, Sara Mardanbigi and Edgar Rico, partnered with two other local taco hot spots, Cuantos Tacos and Discada, to prepare and distribute free meals. Their purpose was twofold: to avoid wasting food that had already been purchased and to meet the community’s needs in a time of emergency. Although Nixta also lost power, their team braved the cold and used gas appliances to prepare more than 3,000 meals for neighbors, retirement homes, hospitals, and warming centers. Donations from other local restaurants and businesses (including Dough Boys, Trill Foods, and Casper Fermentables) flowed in, and Nixta became a temporary hub for resource distribution.

We learned very quickly from the Texas freeze that anything can be taken away in the blink of an eye,” said Sara, co-owner of Nixta. “Basic essential items, like water, food, and heat were inaccessible to 70% of Austinites. We mobilized as quickly as we could because, thankfully, we were able to access the little resources we had to impact our surrounding neighborhood, then, eventually, all throughout the city. Ultimately, the main lesson learned from the relief efforts is that the human spirit is so positive and astounding. Within hours, we were getting flooded with requests (from both individuals and local organizations/companies) to help out in any capacity they could. The collective power of people is what kept us all going, and that was a really beautiful thing to witness and be a small part of.

Nixta’s owners are no strangers to the local food system and mutual aid. They source several ingredients locally — including a portion of the heirloom corn, which is nixtamalized and transformed into the delicious corn tortillas that are a staple on their menu. They have also supported mutual aid efforts in the community by becoming a site of the ATX Free Fridge Project, which makes free food accessible in areas affected by food insecurity.

Having the free fridge stationed right outside of Nixta has been a live reality check every day,” said Sara. “The fridge draws everyone - bikers stopping to get water + fruits, neighbors who pick up a cake mix for their kid's birthdays, displaced and furloughed employees who are living out of their cars , and everything in between. We've learned that food access is one part of the equation, but food education is also vital. Many neighbors do not have access to ovens in their residences, therefore, cannot prepare certain items, such as turnips (nor know what many of the ingredients are). We've also learned that the notion of solidarity, not charity, is quite powerful. The fridge is, more-or-less, self-sustaining and is a much-needed staple, not only in our community but other places across Austin and beyond.

What happened at Nixta during the storm is a shining example of how Central Texans came together to support one another in inspiring ways during this historic disaster.

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Dead cauliflower at Johnson’s Backyard Garden, Photo by Scott David Gordan

Continued Relief Efforts

While the winter storm is behind us, farmers and community members continue to feel its impact. Substantial crop and livestock losses will lead to lower revenue for farmers and ranchers, and the spring planting season has been delayed as they shift farm labor to repairing damages. Uri’s impact is felt more acutely by communities of color, who are historically underserved; some are still dealing with unresolved damage and a lack of basic resources.

As climate change causes more extreme weather events like Winter Storm Uri, those who are systemically underserved will continue to be the most severely affected. We must continue to support our local food system so the next time a natural disaster strikes, our local supply chain can withstand the impact, and local food can remain accessible for all.

If you are a farmer seeking disaster relief assistance or other farm development resources, please email mehmling@sustainablefoodcenter.org.

Other resources include the STAR Fund, The Livestock Indemnity Program, ELAP (Emergency Assistance for Livestock Honeybees and Farm-Raised Fish), or the TOFGA Fund.

If you want to support continued relief efforts, visit the links below to learn more.