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Texans running out of food as weather crisis disrupts supply chain

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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 food supply chain that people rely on every day.

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 canceled 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.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/02/17/texas-food-supply-power-outage/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas Republicans are angry at big tech’s reaction to Capitol siege -- but few mention the GOP’s role in sowing election misinformation

After major technology and social media companies this month banned former President Donald Trump from their platforms and dumped conspiracy peddling accounts and the app Parler over their respective roles in inciting the deadly siege on the U.S. Capitol, Texas Republicans portrayed the moves as discrimination against GOP voices.

But many lawmakers did so without acknowledging or decrying the role Republicans and social media played in stoking the baseless conspiracies that fueled the insurrectionists' vicious anger at the outcome of a free and fair election.

Much of the Texas GOP's post-siege rhetoric depicts the technology and social media companies' moves as the "censorship of conservatives," even though the actions were in response to credible evidence that communications were inciting violence. And legal experts agree that these tech companies are exercising their full legal rights to moderate anything on their platforms. That means some GOP politicians' vows to take legal, congressional and legislative action now put them in the rare position of advocating for something they typically oppose: more regulation of companies operating in a free market.

Beleaguered Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a fervent Trump loyalist who attended the rally that preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol, even issued civil investigative demands last week to five tech and social media firms, including Facebook and Twitter.

"The seemingly coordinated de-platforming of the President of the United States and several leading voices not only chills free speech, it wholly silences those whose speech and political beliefs do not align with leaders of Big Tech companies," Paxton said in a Jan. 13 news release.

According to U.S. Code, an attorney general can issue a civil investigative demand during a racketeering investigation in order to acquire information or documents relevant to that investigation. These demands can be used to obtain evidence of a company's procedures and policies. According to last week's press release, Paxton is using civil investigative demands to learn about the procedures that social media firms use to regulate postings or user accounts.

"The public deserves the truth about how these companies moderate and possibly eliminate speech they disagree with," Paxton said.

Following the violent riot at the Capitol, Paxton claimed on Twitter that the mob consisted of "antifa thugs" rather than Trump supporters. FBI assistant director Steven D'Antuono refuted that claim during a news conference, saying that the agency has "no indication" that antifa had anything to do with the violence.

After filing a long shot lawsuit seeking to overturn the election results (which the U.S. Supreme Court quickly rejected), the Texas attorney general has continued to peddle baseless claims of election fraud. He has not acknowledged any personal role in sowing doubts over the election results among far-right fringe groups. Instead, he has used recent days to launch an attack on social media companies.

Trump repeatedly advertised the "Save America" rally for Jan. 6, the day Congress was slated to formally certify the election results, on his Twitter account. He also attacked the results of the election — despite his own Justice Department's finding that there was no evidence of widespread fraud that would have changed the outcome — during his speech to the crowd that day.

"If you don't fight like hell, we're not going to have a country anymore," he told his supporters, just before many of them broke into the Capitol.

Facebook, Twitter and other tech corporations have faced criticism in the past for allowing their platforms to be used to sow misinformation and propagate violence, mostly from Democrats. Democratic lawmakers last year got little traction with a bill in Congress that would have held social media companies accountable for the "amplification of harmful, radicalizing content that leads to offline violence."

The tech companies most recently explained their removal of Trump's accounts in his final days in office by citing concerns that his false claims of election fraud may possibly incite more violence. Other accounts and hashtags like #StopTheSteal that glorified violence or promoted QAnon conspiracies have also been purged by various sites.

"We faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance, forcing us to focus all of our actions on public safety," Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said of the platform's decision to ban Trump. "Offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real, and what drives our policy and enforcement above all."

The Washington Post reported that since Twitter and other social media platforms suspended the president's accounts, online misinformation about election fraud has dropped 73%, according to San Francisco-based research firm Zignal Labs. Social media mentions about voter fraud plummeted from 2.5 million to just 688,000 in the week after Trump's removal from Twitter.

Parler, Paxton and freedom of speech

Meanwhile, Apple, Amazon Web Services and other companies also severed ties with the app Parler due to its role in failing to address right-wing conspiracy theories and calls for pro-Tump violence on its platform. The app and website served as a social media forum for groups of far-right extremists and QAnon conspiracy theorists.

After the Capitol siege, ProPublica recreated the scene by aggregating thousands of videos uploaded to Parler showing the pro-Trump mob breaching the walls of the Capitol. On Tuesday, CNN reported that Parler was partially back online with the help of a Russian-based tech company. However, the platform remains mostly unavailable for its millions of users.

On Thursday, the Democratic chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform requested that the FBI launch a "robust examination" of Parler's role in the Capitol siege and the site's apparent ties to a Russian firm.

Despite the recent violence at the Capitol and an accompanying string of arrests, Texas Republicans have continued to focus on the threat they believe "big tech" poses to freedom of speech.

In a Jan. 9 statement, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick condemned the violent siege of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters and took a swipe at tech companies, but stopped short of implicating Trump himself in the attack. Patrick chaired Trump's reelection campaign in Texas.

"Enough of allowing Big Tech – Twitter, Google, Facebook and Apple — to silence our freedom of speech," Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick wrote in a Jan. 9 news release. "We cannot let this happen. It will lead to more anger. And enough of all the hate on social media toward those who have a different opinion than we do."

Legal experts, meanwhile, point out that the First Amendment — which protects free speech — only prohibits government censorship. That leaves private companies to choose their own protocols.

"From a First Amendment perspective, social media companies are private actors and aren't subject to the First Amendment," said Scot Powe, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law. "So it's a matter of constitutional law. They can be as biased as they want in any direction they choose."

Still, many Republicans, like freshman U.S. Rep. Beth Van Duyne of Irving, echoed Patrick's sentiments.

"Big Tech is increasingly wielding their power and market dominance to silence conservative voices, and we need to put an end to it," Van Duyne said on Twitter.

Van Duyne was one of 17 Texas Republicans in Congress who voted to contest the electoral votes from at least one of the states Trump lost in November. She decried the violent insurrection at the Capitol in a Jan. 6 Twitter thread, "imploring President Trump to send a clear message by denouncing this sickening violence."

Van Duyne added on Twitter that she is pledging to refuse future campaign contributions from major tech firms. According to campaign finance reports, she did not receive any campaign donations from major tech corporations during the 2020 election cycle.

"Please join me in sending a clear message to those in Silicon Valley: If you're going to censor conservative voices, we don't want your money," Van Duyne said in a Jan. 15 news release.

A long standing legal battle

Many Republicans' ire after the Capitol siege has been aimed at a part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that establishes tech companies as private platforms instead of publishers.

That decades-old law reaffirms the ability of private firms to regulate content as they see fit. And Section 230 of the act protects media companies from legal liability for what their users post. Many Texas Republicans were eyeing a repeal of the section even before the Capitol siege, the cancellation of a sitting president's social media accounts and Trump's second impeachment.

"Section 230 gives every company the freedom to do what it wants," Stanford Law School professor Mark Lemley told the Tribune. "It can moderate or not. And it can decide what to moderate in ways that favor some speech over others. Facebook bans nudity, for instance; other sites don't."

But since Twitter banned Trump, Texans in the GOP have taken to social media to renew their criticisms of Section 230.

U.S. Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell, wrote in a Jan. 7 tweet that Section 230 has allowed "Big Tech to SILENCE the leader of the free world."

But experts say the basic legal rights of private media corporations allow them to remove content or user accounts, and Section 230 only goes an extra step to protect such companies from lawsuits over what their users post.

Gooden objected to Congress' certification of some of the Electoral College votes that gave President Joe Biden the victory over former President Trump. Following the Capitol riot, Gooden condemned the violence on Twitter, but he has continued to back Trump's false claims of election fraud while opposing Biden's "radical agenda."

Gooden's staff did not respond to a request for comment from the Tribune.

The fight in the Texas Legislature

Texas Republicans back home have also promised legislation aimed at major tech companies since social media giants and other big firms purged Trump, conspiracy theorists and Parler.

State Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, wants to file legislation completely banning government contracts with companies like Apple, which stopped offering Parler on its app store.

"I've asked my staff to start drafting legislation to prohibit the use of tax dollars to purchase @Apple products," Cain tweeted last week — from an Apple iPhone, according to the tweet. "I hope legislators in other states will do the same."

In a statement to the Tribune, Cain said he enjoys using Twitter and Facebook, but he believes that such companies "unfairly target conservatives" and should not benefit by receiving any tax dollars through government contracts. While using his social media accounts to promote this legislation over the last week, Cain has not condemned the Capitol riot in any of his postings.

Cain's staff did not provide any further information about the details of Texas government contracts with Apple, including how much money the state's many independent agencies may pay the company.

State Sen. Carol Alvarado, a Houston Democrat, said such a law banning tech contracts with the government would only disrupt the operations of the state government and create unnecessary difficulties with technology. She added that proposing the kind of law that Cain envisions would distract from the real problems that Texans are facing every day.

"I don't see that people are demanding that we do something about this," Alvarado said. "People want us to fight the virus and to get our economy going again. I hope that people from both sides would focus on those issues and not a solution that's looking for a problem."

Disclosure: Amazon Web Services (AWS), Apple, Facebook and Google 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.

Houston cop arrested for storming the US Capitol insists he just wanted to view 'art on the walls'

Federal agents have charged the former Houston police officer who allegedly joined a violent mob that invaded the U.S. Capitol with knowingly entering a restricted government building and engaging in disruptive and disorderly conduct, according to media reports Tuesday. An affidavit written by FBI Special Agent Amie C. Stemen named the previously unidentified officer as Tam Dinh Pham.

In a press conference last week, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said he had notified federal authorities about Pham's presence at the Capitol riot after seeing Facebook photos linking Pham to the pro-Trump supporters. Pham then agreed to meet with FBI agents at his home in Richmond on Jan. 12.

According to the affidavit published by media organizations, Pham told the agents that he had traveled to D.C. from Houston on Jan. 5 for his wife's business trip. He initially denied entering the Capitol, but admitted to attending the Trump rally earlier in the day. However, federal officials found photos of Pham standing in the Capitol rotunda in the deleted photos section of his phone. One agent warned Pham about making any false statements, and Pham agreed to cooperate for the rest of the investigation.

Pham also denied being a member of any far-right social media groups that had advertised the Jan. 6 rally, saying that he learned about the gathering on Facebook and attended because he wanted to "see history," court documents show. After the president's speech to the crowd that morning, he followed others to the Capitol, eventually climbing over toppled fences and barricades along the way. The photographs on Pham's phone place him in the rotunda between 2:50 and 2:55 p.m. Eastern Time on Jan. 6.

Pham told FBI agents that he spent about 15 minutes inside the Capitol, where "he looked at the historical art on the walls and took photographs and videos inside."

Acevedo announced last Thursday that Pham had resigned pending the federal investigation.

Since last week, political news site The Appeal has been tracking law enforcement officers who participated in the pro-Trump riot that left five people dead. As of Tuesday, the site has identified over 30 officers from departments around the country who joined the mob at the Capitol. The Washington Post also reported that ahead of President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration on Wednesday, federal authorities are currently in the process of screening troops from the National Guard for any connections to extremist groups, a choice that Gov. Greg Abbott quickly decried on Twitter.

"This is the most offensive thing I've ever heard," Abbott tweeted. "No one should ever question the loyalty or professionalism of the Texas National Guard. I authorized more than 1,000 to go to D.C. I'll never do it again if they are disrespected like this."

As part of this security screening process, officials have removed 12 members of the National Guard from helping secure Biden's inauguration, the Associated Press reported Tuesday. All 12 troops either had links to far-right extremist groups or had posted violent or extreme views on online platforms. It's not known what units the 12 members served in.

Disclosure: Facebook has been a financial supporter 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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