Stealing to survive: More Americans are shoplifting food as aid runs out during the pandemic

Early in the pandemic, Joo Park noticed a worrisome shift at the market he manages near downtown Washington: At least once a day, he’d spot someone slipping a package of meat, a bag of rice or other food into a shirt or under a jacket. Diapers, shampoo and laundry detergent began disappearing in bigger numbers, too.

Since then, he said, thefts have more than doubled at Capitol Supermarket — even though he now stations more employees at the entrance, asks shoppers to leave backpacks up front and displays high-theft items like hand sanitizer and baking yeast in more conspicuous areas. Park doesn’t usually call the police, choosing instead to bar offenders from coming back.

“It’s become much harder during the pandemic,” he said. “People will say, ‘I was just hungry.’ And then what do you do?”

The coronavirus recession has been a relentless churn of high unemployment and economic uncertainty. The government stimulus that kept millions of Americans from falling into poverty earlier in the pandemic is long gone, and new aid is still a dot on the horizon after months of congressional inaction. Hunger is chronic, at levels not seen in decades.

The result is a growing subset of Americans who are stealing food to survive.

Shoplifting is up markedly since the pandemic began in the spring and at higher levels than in past economic downturns, according to interviews with more than a dozen retailers, security experts and police departments across the country. But what’s distinctive about this trend, experts say, is what’s being taken — more staples like bread, pasta and baby formula.

“We’re seeing an increase in low-impact crimes,” said Jeff Zisner, chief executive of workplace security firm Aegis. “It’s not a whole lot of people going in, grabbing TVs and running out the front door. It’s a very different kind of crime — it’s people stealing consumables and items associated with children and babies.”

A growing number of Americans are going hungry

With Americans being advised to brace for a difficult winter amid skyrocketing coronavirus infection rates and the economic recovery nearly stalled, the near-term outlook is grim. More than 20 million Americans are on some form of unemployment assistance, and 12 million will run out of benefits the day after Christmas unless new relief materializes. Though lawmakers have made progress this week on a $908 billion bill, details are still being worked out, congressional aides said.

Meanwhile, an estimated 54 million Americans will struggle with hunger this year, a 45 percent increase from 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With food aid programs like SNAP and WIC being reduced, and other federal assistance on the brink of expiration, food banks and pantries are being inundated, reporting hours-long waits and lines that stretch into the thousands.

Several federal food programs that have provided billions of dollars in fresh produce, dairy and meat to U.S. food banks also are set to expire at the end of the year. The largest among them, the Farmers to Families Food Box, has provided more than 120 million food boxes during the pandemic and is already running out of funding in many parts of the country.

A $4.5 billion Trump food program is running out of money early, leaving families hungry

With the United States now registering more than 150,000 new coronavirus cases a day, some communities are reintroducing restrictions in an effort to contain the virus. Most of California is now under strict stay-at-home orders, for example, while states including Nevada, Maryland and Pennsylvania have issued new indoor occupancy limits. Such orders tend to hit already vulnerable workers in low-wage service jobs in restaurants, retail and bars the hardest.

In Maryland, Jean was successfully juggling college and a job, and had just bought her first car, when the pandemic crashed down like a sneaker wave. Her son’s day-care center suddenly closed in April, forcing her to give up her $15-an-hour job as a receptionist. But quitting meant she didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits. She says she was denied food stamps at least three times and gave up on local food banks because of the lines.

With no stimulus aid and her savings gone by May, Jean said she was out of options. So she began sneaking food into her son’s stroller at the local Walmart. She said she’d take things like ground beef, rice or potatoes but always pay for something small, like a packet of M&M’s. Each time, she’d tell herself that God would understand.

“I used to think, if I get in trouble, I’d say, ‘Look, I’m sorry, I wasn’t stealing a television. I just didn’t know what else to do. It wasn’t malicious. We were hungry,’ ” said Jean, 21, who asked to be identified by her middle name to discuss her situation freely. “It’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s what I had to do.”

Tracking retail losses

Retailers have historically been most concerned about staff when it comes to what they call “shrink.” Workers are typically behind about a quarter of the $25 billion in global losses reported each year, a category that includes lost merchandise, stolen cash and employee errors, security experts say.

Since then, he said, thefts have more than doubled at Capitol Supermarket — even though he now stations more employees at the entrance, asks shoppers to leave backpacks up front and displays high-theft items like hand sanitizer and baking yeast in more conspicuous areas. Park doesn’t usually call the police, choosing instead to bar offenders from coming back.

“It’s become much harder during the pandemic,” he said. “People will say, ‘I was just hungry.’ And then what do you do?”

The coronavirus recession has been a relentless churn of high unemployment and economic uncertainty. The government stimulus that kept millions of Americans from falling into poverty earlier in the pandemic is long gone, and new aid is still a dot on the horizon after months of congressional inaction. Hunger is chronic, at levels not seen in decades.

The result is a growing subset of Americans who are stealing food to survive.

Shoplifting is up markedly since the pandemic began in the spring and at higher levels than in past economic downturns, according to interviews with more than a dozen retailers, security experts and police departments across the country. But what’s distinctive about this trend, experts say, is what’s being taken — more staples like bread, pasta and baby formula.

“We’re seeing an increase in low-impact crimes,” said Jeff Zisner, chief executive of workplace security firm Aegis. “It’s not a whole lot of people going in, grabbing TVs and running out the front door. It’s a very different kind of crime — it’s people stealing consumables and items associated with children and babies.”

A growing number of Americans are going hungry

With Americans being advised to brace for a difficult winter amid skyrocketing coronavirus infection rates and the economic recovery nearly stalled, the near-term outlook is grim. More than 20 million Americans are on some form of unemployment assistance, and 12 million will run out of benefits the day after Christmas unless new relief materializes. Though lawmakers have made progress this week on a $908 billion bill, details are still being worked out, congressional aides said.

Meanwhile, an estimated 54 million Americans will struggle with hunger this year, a 45 percent increase from 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With food aid programs like SNAP and WIC being reduced, and other federal assistance on the brink of expiration, food banks and pantries are being inundated, reporting hours-long waits and lines that stretch into the thousands.

Several federal food programs that have provided billions of dollars in fresh produce, dairy and meat to U.S. food banks also are set to expire at the end of the year. The largest among them, the Farmers to Families Food Box, has provided more than 120 million food boxes during the pandemic and is already running out of funding in many parts of the country.

A $4.5 billion Trump food program is running out of money early, leaving families hungry

With the United States now registering more than 150,000 new coronavirus cases a day, some communities are reintroducing restrictions in an effort to contain the virus. Most of California is now under strict stay-at-home orders, for example, while states including Nevada, Maryland and Pennsylvania have issued new indoor occupancy limits. Such orders tend to hit already vulnerable workers in low-wage service jobs in restaurants, retail and bars the hardest.

In Maryland, Jean was successfully juggling college and a job, and had just bought her first car, when the pandemic crashed down like a sneaker wave. Her son’s day-care center suddenly closed in April, forcing her to give up her $15-an-hour job as a receptionist. But quitting meant she didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits. She says she was denied food stamps at least three times and gave up on local food banks because of the lines.

With no stimulus aid and her savings gone by May, Jean said she was out of options. So she began sneaking food into her son’s stroller at the local Walmart. She said she’d take things like ground beef, rice or potatoes but always pay for something small, like a packet of M&M’s. Each time, she’d tell herself that God would understand.

“I used to think, if I get in trouble, I’d say, ‘Look, I’m sorry, I wasn’t stealing a television. I just didn’t know what else to do. It wasn’t malicious. We were hungry,’ ” said Jean, 21, who asked to be identified by her middle name to discuss her situation freely. “It’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s what I had to do.”

Tracking retail losses

Retailers have historically been most concerned about staff when it comes to what they call “shrink.” Workers are typically behind about a quarter of the $25 billion in global losses reported each year, a category that includes lost merchandise, stolen cash and employee errors, security experts say. Read More

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