If you’ve been waiting for a sign that things are really bad economically in the United States, here it is. Americans who never would have contemplated shoplifting before are stealing food to survive.
Well, guess what?
People are hungry.
Food insecurity and hunger
I wrote the other day about how the response to the pandemic has destroyed the personal finances of American families. An area that deserves more attention is food insecurity. Food insecurity is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life at a household level.
Hunger, on the other hand, is a personal, physiological condition that results from food insecurity.
The word “hunger,” the panel stated in its final report, “…should refer to a potential consequence of food insecurity that, because of prolonged, involuntary lack of food, results in discomfort, illness, weakness, or pain that goes beyond the usual uneasy sensation.” (source)
More than 50 million people are suffering from food insecurity in the United States right now, a number that has leaped dramatically due to the response to the coronavirus.
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. (source)
There are a number of reasons this is occurring at such large numbers.
Massive numbers of job losses
The increasing price of food
Children who used to get breakfast and lunch at school are now eating all three meals at home
Many families who can’t afford their bills and groceries still make too much money to qualify for federal food assistance
This is a topic that a lot of people are judgmental about because they’ve never experienced it and consider it a sign of a character flaw.
I spent several years living with food insecurity and poverty when my children were younger, and I can tell you for a fact, it’s a terrifying feeling when you have no idea what you’re going to feed those precious little humans for dinner. I skipped many meals so my kids could eat and I was working full time. Food insecurity is not just something that happens to lazy bums. It could be happening to that nice family next door to you and you’d never know it.
Having been in this horrible position, I want to urge you, if you are able to afford it, to please donate to food banks, soup kitchens, or directly to families in need. Non-perishable foods, treats for the kids, peanut butter, things that don’t require a lot of cooking (families in need may not have the utilities available to cook beans and rice from scratch), and hygiene products are all very welcome. When you’re broke, fresh produce is always the first to go, so if you’re donating directly and can swing it, consider adding some fresh fruits and vegetables.
Elected officials are busy playing games.
As food becomes more difficult to acquire, people are becoming desperate. Hunger in the United States has reached a level that hasn’t been seen in decades. Much of the additional aid from the government expired months ago and our elected officials are too busy playing games to pass a bill that will actually assist the people who are suffering without lining the pockets of big businesses.
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…
…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. (source)
The government – you know – the ones who have caused this crisis by destroying millions of jobs and hundreds of thousands of businesses – aren’t doing a whole lot to help. While it isn’t the government’s job to take care of everybody, does that change when they’re the ones who screwed everybody in the first place and created a situation in which people couldn’t take care of themselves?
So how are people without any money getting food?
Twenty percent of Americans are now turning to food banks to help keep their families fed. And according to a report in the Washington Post, the shoplifting of food and other essential items is increasing significantly.
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.” (source)
I’m sure we can all agree that stealing is wrong. But I’m also sure we can all agree that being unable to feed our children could compel us to do things we’d otherwise never do.
The Washington Post article shows the human side of those who are shoplifting.
So who is actually doing the stealing? It’s a mixed bag. There are some people who are literally stealing to survive while others are stealing items to continue to maintain their lifestyle or “spice up” their inexpensive meals.
Jean is a single mom who was working full time and going to college when the pandemic hit, causing her son’s preschool to close, which in turn, meant she had to quit her job to care for him, which in turn meant she wasn’t eligible for unemployment.
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.” (source)
While Jean feels terrible about it and has focused on necessities, there’s another side to the shoplifting – those who don’t seem to feel badly about it at all and who shoplift things that aren’t exactly keeping them alive.
Sloane lost her job in the initial wave of layoffs and her partner quit because he didn’t feel safe working in retail during the pandemic. She focuses on large chains instead of smaller businesses because they can afford the loss.
In Virginia, Sloane, 28, says she has been dropping avocados, mushrooms and other fresh produce into her bag without paying for them since September. She worries constantly about getting caught and takes only a couple of items at a time. “But when you’re eating cheap meals every day, sometimes it’s nice to have an avocado to spice things up for one night,” she said. (source)
And Alex graduated with a master’s degree in May when absolutely nobody was hiring. She steals from Whole Foods and doesn’t feel guilty.
She’d spent most of her $1,200 stimulus check on rent, and used what little she had left to buy groceries. Everything else — vitamins, moisturizer, body wash — she said she shoplifted from a Whole Foods Market a few miles from her apartment in Chicago.
“It was like, I could spend $10 and get a couple of vegetables or I could spend $10 on just a box of tampons,” said Alex, 27, who asked to be identified by her middle name to speak candidly…
…She says she moves through the store mostly unnoticed. Usually, she said, she picks up a few bulky vegetables — a bunch of kale, maybe, or a few avocados — to disguise the pricier items she slips into her bag at the self checkout.
“I don’t feel much guilt about it,” she said. “It’s been very frustrating to be part of a class of people who is losing so much right now. And then to have another class who is profiting from the pandemic — well, let’s just say I don’t feel too bad about taking $15 or $20 of stuff from Whole Foods when Jeff Bezos is the richest man on Earth.” (Bezos is the founder and chief executive of Amazon, which owns Whole Foods. He also owns The Washington Post.) (source)
This is just a small glimpse into the mindset of people whose circumstances have changed.
You may read these stories and focus on the last two. If you did that, I think you’d be overlooking the bigger picture. Those who are stealing to survive are not out there talking to the Washington Post about it. They’re ashamed to be in the position in which they have to steal. And the statistics support this theory. To be clear, more of the things being stolen are far from luxury items like body wash and avocados. Items being stolen the most frequently are diapers, formula, ground beef, rice, pasta, bread, milk, and winter clothing.
They may not be getting away with as much as they think they are.
The people who are stealing smaller items and focusing on big companies that “can absorb the losses” may think that they’ll get in less trouble because the value of the items is so low. But they could be in for a terrible surprise.
An employee of Target who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity warned that many of the larger stores like Target and Walmart have facial recognition software and they keep records of what a person is stealing. He explained how it works:
Stores like Target and Walmart have facial recognition software and they will put you into a database even if you’ve only stolen one small thing and will wait until you’ve stolen a cumulative amount of 600-1000 dollars worth of merchandise so they can charge you with something bigger.
So for example, if you walked into a Target in Richmond and stole a pair of panties, and then went to a different city, say, Charlotte, as soon as you walk into the store, it pulls up your face and gives security the option to open the file and like see all the other tapes with your face on them.
You know all those cameras that are everywhere at the large discount stores now, including at the self-checkout counter and over the doors as you walk in? Yeah, those are the ones putting you in a database.
So what happens next?
While it feels like our nation’s economic disaster has been going on for a very long time, we’re still in the early stages. We still have a regular rule of law in most places. We have police officers, a court system, and some forms of government aid. But as things worsen – and they will – so too will the level of desperation.
Shoplifting of food and necessities has increased dramatically since last March. Retail theft in Philadelphia is up 60% over last year’s numbers. This kind of theft always increases after a major disaster, but according to Read Hayes, a criminologist at the University of Florida and the director of the Loss Prevention Research Council, “the current trend line is skewing even higher” than normal post-disaster.
The fact that retail theft has continued to increase so dramatically is an incredibly important warning sign for us to heed. While some people seem to be stealing out of a sense of entitlement, others are stealing in order to survive. No longer are people able to put together meals from food banks, government assistance, their jobs – they are stealing in order to feed their families.
If you look at economic collapses, historically the thefts start small. You see the things we’re seeing now. A mom trying to feed her toddler. A broke young couple trying to replace the things they can no longer afford to buy. But don’t expect things to stay at the current level.
Where do we go next? Well, hopefully, it won’t get this bad, but consider Venezuela – a country whose path to economic disaster we are parallelling at a rather unsettling level.
Remember in Venezuela when people began attacking trucks carrying supplies? Or how hungry people have stolen cows and horses from farms? Or how they’ve raided the zoos in search of meat? Remember the videos and photos you’ve seen of hungry people looting – not for televisions and expensive sneakers – but in order to eat?
And then what?
When all the stores are out of food? When all the farms have been plundered? Where do those hungry people go next?
It’s not a stretch of the imagination to think they might show up at your front door. It would probably start with the folks who know you. Friends, extended family, neighbors who all think you might be able to spare a meal or a loaf of bread. You should consider now how you plan to answer that question, which will, of course, vary from person to person.
I hope that you’ve practiced careful OpSec all these years we’ve been talking about it. Because we are approaching a time when that your insistence on privacy won’t seem silly to the people who thought you were cute but maybe a little paranoid or a little kooky.
If things continue to decline and it becomes well known that you have a supply of food, you’d better hope that you have a vigorous defensive plan and the means to enact it. Because you’re going to have a Black Friday mob at your gate. And they’re going to be after the means to stay alive, not just sale-priced bathroom linens.