Weeks After Hurricane Harvey, Grocery Essentials Can Still Be Scarce In Houston

Christa Havican is a bartender, and that means she works until the wee hours. “My hours and eating schedule are nothing near normal,” she says. Grocery visits after midnight happen at 24-hour Kroger stores in Montrose or off of I-10, even though neither are close to home. Her closer option is the H‑E‑B at 6102 Scott Street, which is open until midnight.

On Sunday, September 17—nearly three weeks after floods caused by Hurricane Harvey—Havican walked into the Scott street H-E-B to find that the store was still out of many kinds of meat, bread, milk and produce. “The selection has always been lackluster, but there is a Frenchy’s in-store and it generally has the basics to get me by,” says Havican.

Well, there was a Frenchy’s fried chicken stand, but even that is gone now. Instead, a sign taped to the counter glass invites guests to visit their full-service restaurant a little further down Scott Street.

meat case at Scott Street H‑E‑B
Three weeks after Hurricane Harvey, the meat section at the H‑E‑B on Scott Street is still only half-full. Photo by Christa Havican

Havican shot an Instagram video of the closed Frenchy’s kiosk to share with friends. It was when she panned to the meat section that she realized there was a bigger problem. “It was almost completely empty. We’re talking the pre-hurricane-stock-up-because-shit-is-going-fast kind of bare. It was the same case with lunchmeat, most of the cheese and milk and dry goods.”

Her boyfriend, though, who lives in Bunker Hill, wasn’t having the same issue. Havican visited the H-E-B at 9710 Bunker Hill next day to find a vibrant, well-maintained store with all departments nearly fully stocked.

“I know that there is a difference in the style of stores—one is a ‘plus’ and the other is an old-school location,” she says. “I also understand there is a different demographic that shops at said stores. The things they may be able to afford or desire to eat might be different, but what I witnessed is appalling.”

meat department at Bunker Hill H‑E‑B
Sharp contrast: the fully-stocked meat department at the Bunker Hill H‑E‑B. Photo by Christa Havican

The 77021 zip code where Havican lives is not an affluent area. The median income is $31,100. According to Pew Research, the lowest household income that still qualifies as “lower middle class” is $37,866. That means the area surrounding the H-E-B at 6102 Scott is definitely a poverty-stricken one. At that level, it is grocery stores, not restaurants, where affordable food can be purchased.

After that experience, Havican wanted some answers from H‑E‑B, especially after the company got a ton of publicity for post-Harvey efforts, including bringing an extra 1,000 employees to restock stores on August 30. “I am all for hearing a good reason for what I saw,” she says. “Please, tell me why this morning [at the Bunker Hill location] I could buy over 100 different types of cheeses but tonight on my way home I will be lucky to find some fresh fruit. [Hurricane] Harvey is no longer an excuse.”

Houston Food Finder communicated the concerns to a public relations representative for H‑E‑B. Here is the company’s statement on the issue:

“The H-E-B store at Old Spanish Trail and Scott Street was impacted more significantly than many of our other Houston stores that did not flood. The store lost power and refrigeration capabilities resulting in the loss of all perishable products in store. We are working diligently to replenish the store with the product assortment you have come to expect as quickly as possible.”

H-E-B cheese comparison
A tale of two cheese sections: on the left, the fully-stocked packaged cheeses at the Bunker Hill H-E-B. On the right, the half-empty section at the Scott Street location.

Havican’s photos do show refrigeration and working freezers. It’s just that these are half-empty. H-E-B’s explanation doesn’t explain why items that don’t need refrigeration, such as bread, haven’t been replenished.

Does a wildly successful grocery store chain have any obligation to keep a store in a low-income neighborhood well-stocked, or even open? At a time when the term “food desert” has been invented to apply to poor urban neighborhoods, answer hinges as much on moral reasons as practical ones.

Unlike many others in similar neighborhoods, at least Havican has two neighborhood grocery stores from which to choose.

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