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'Terrible despair': due to the pandemic, US residents are starving en masse and stealing food in stores

US retailers and police departments report an increase in theft of essential items such as food and hygiene products. The Washington Post.

Photo: Shutterstock

At the start of the pandemic, Joo Park noticed alarming changes in the market he operates near downtown Washington: at least once a day, he saw someone stuff a bag of meat, rice and other food under his shirt or jacket. Diapers, shampoo and laundry detergent also began to disappear in large quantities. Since then, he said, the number of thefts in shops and markets in the capital has more than doubled.

“It got much harder during the pandemic,” he says. - People say, they say. we just want to eat. And what will you do? "

The recession due to the coronavirus has triggered a continuing rise in unemployment and economic uncertainty. Federal aid that kept millions of Americans out of poverty in the early stages of the pandemic is long over, and new aid is still on the horizon after months of congressional inaction. Hunger in the United States has already become chronic, a level not seen in decades.

As a result, a growing number of Americans are stealing food to survive.

According to interviews with more than a dozen retailers, security experts and police departments across the country, shoplifting has risen markedly since the pandemic began in the spring and at a higher rate than during past economic downturns. But the hallmark of this trend, experts say, is that more staple foods such as bread, pasta and infant formula are consumed.

With Americans being advised to prepare for a tough winter amid skyrocketing rates of coronavirus infection and a near-stalled economic recovery, the outlook is bleak. More than 20 million Americans receive some form of unemployment benefits, and 12 million will be left without benefits the day after Christmas unless new assistance is available. While lawmakers have made progress on the $ 908 billion bill, details are still being worked out.

The US Department of Agriculture estimates that about 54 million Americans will suffer from hunger this year, up 45% from 2019. As food aid programs like SNAP and WIC shrink and other federal aid is about to expire, food banks are reporting hours of waiting and huge queues.

Several federal food programs that have provided US food banks with billions of dollars in fresh produce, dairy and meat also expire at the end of the year.

With more than 150 new cases of coronavirus registered in the US every day, restrictions and self-isolation requirements are reintroduced in some parts of the country. This affects the already vulnerable workers in low-wage industries in restaurants, retail and bars.

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Jean from Maryland was successfully combining college and work and managed to buy her first car when the pandemic hit. Her son's kindergarten suddenly closed in April, forcing her to give up her job and was not eligible for unemployment benefits. Jean says she has been denied food stamps at least three times and has had to give up local grocery banks due to queues.

Savings ended by May. Jin says she had no other options, so she began hiding food in her son's stroller at a local Walmart store. She said she took ground beef, rice, or potatoes, but she always paid for something small, like an M&M package.

“I used to think that if I got into trouble, I would say, I'm sorry, I didn't steal the TV. I just didn't know what else to do, because we were hungry, ”said 21-year-old Jean. "It's not something I'm proud of, but I had to do it."

Tracking trade losses

Store workers are usually responsible for about a quarter of the $ 25 billion in global losses reported each year, according to security experts. This category includes loss of goods, theft of funds, and employee errors.

This changed with the pandemic as theft of goods became more pronounced, especially in areas with high unemployment.

“There is a well-known historical correlation between unemployment and theft,” said Fabienne Tibource, executive director of Compliant IA, which provides retailers with loss prevention software.

In Philadelphia, reports of retail theft were up about 60% year over year after President Trump declared a national emergency in March due to the pandemic. According to local police, they remained at a high level until at least July.

Shoplifting tends to skyrocket during national crises - it jumped 16% after the September 11, 2001 attacks and 34% after the 2008 recession, according to the National Store Theft Prevention Association, which tracks data from U.S. courts. But the current rates are even higher, according to Reed Hayes, a criminologist at the University of Florida.

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Hayes has been tracking thefts since the coronavirus began spreading across the United States in March, and calls the executives of 60 major retail chains every week to help prevent losses. According to him, even 10 months after the start of the pandemic, it is still too early to talk about their full extent.

Sloane, 28, from Virginia, says that since September, she has been packing avocados, mushrooms, and other fresh produce in her bag and hasn't paid for them. She constantly worries that she will be caught, and only takes a couple of products at a time.

“But when you eat cheap food every day, sometimes it's nice to eat an avocado to diversify your diet for one evening,” she said.

Sloane worked in the food industry until the pandemic made adjustments. Her partner worked in retail and had to quit his job without receiving benefits.

“Things are bad: we are late on bills, we are late with the rent, our car will be taken away for non-payment of the loan in nine days,” she complains. "I used to be very self-sufficient, and it is a terrible feeling to suddenly be in such despair."

Like others interviewed by The Washington Post, Sloane said she steals from large networks because they are better at handling losses than small businesses.

Some store managers said they stopped calling the police in case of petty theft because it costs neither time nor resources, especially when employees take on new responsibilities such as checking temperatures and complying with mask requirements. But many are taking extra precautions: Demand for uniformed security guards and hidden loss prevention experts rose 35% during the pandemic.

Food insecurity

According to the latest Census Bureau figures, as of mid-November, about 26 million adults (or one in eight Americans) were undernourished. This figure has grown steadily during the pandemic and has reached record levels since the pandemic.

Government agency began collecting such data in 1998.

“We are supposed to be the greatest and richest country in the world, and we have no insurance in case something like this happens? - surprised Daniel Nirenberg, President and Founder of Food Tank, a non-profit organization dedicated to food justice and sustainability. "People are forced to steal when they shouldn't, and this is a great American tragedy."

Alex received her master's degree in May and immediately found herself in a quandary: no job, no money and, since most of the country was still closed, no hope of changing anything. She spent most of the $ 1200 financial aid on rent and what she had left was used to buy groceries. Everything else - vitamins, moisturizer, shower gel - was stolen by the girl from the Whole Foods Market in Chicago.

She now has a job that pays $ 15 an hour, but Alex is still trying to make ends meet. She says she continues to steal from stores, although she has never done one before. Now, every few weeks.

“I don't feel too guilty about this,” Alex said. - It is very unpleasant to be part of a class of people who are losing so much now. Given that there are people who profit from the pandemic. I have no qualms about taking $ 15 or $ 20 from Whole Foods because Jeff Bezos is the richest man on earth. " (Bezos is the founder and CEO of Amazon, which owns Whole Foods. He also owns The Washington Post.)

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Jean, a Maryland single mother, confesses that before the pandemic, she stole formula cans from Walmart stores several times when she could not produce enough breast milk for her young son. But during the crisis, everything worsened. When money became difficult, Jean chose to pay rent and car, but not groceries. Now she has found a job and hopes that she will never have to steal again, although she says that her sense of security is fleeting.

“Alas, I know what it is like to do everything possible, but still not cope,” Jin complains. "And I know it could happen again."

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Miscellaneous In the U.S. theft U.S. economy unemployment
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