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.”
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% 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.
With the United States now registering more than 150,000 new 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.
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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.”
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.
That changed with the pandemic as customer shoplifting became more pronounced, especially in areas with high joblessness, said Fabien Tiburce, chief executive of Compliant IA, which provides loss prevention software to retailers. “There is a well-known historical correlation between unemployment and theft,” he said, a connection that is more entrenched in the United States than in countries with more robust safety nets like Canada and Australia.
Dollar Tree and Family Dollar, which often are concentrated in low-income areas, have seen “increasing instances of theft” during the past year, according to spokeswoman Kayleigh Painter. She declined to share specific data or protocols, but said the company is “continually evaluating and enhancing on-premise security and surveillance systems, as well as our associate training.”
In Philadelphia, reports of retail theft jumped about 60%, year over year, just after President Donald Trump declared a national emergency in March because of the pandemic. They remained at elevated levels through at least July, according to local police data.
Though shoplifting tends to spike during national crises – it jumped 16% after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and 34% after the 2008 recession, according to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, which tracks data from U.S. courts – the current trend line is skewing even higher, according to Read Hayes, a criminologist at the University of Florida and the director of the Loss Prevention Research Council.
Hayes has been tracking theft since the coronavirus began sweeping across the United States in March, and has phone calls with the leaders of 60 major retail chains every other week to help them prevent losses. Most reports of retail theft have been anecdotal, he said, and even 10 months into the pandemic, it’s too early to know the full scope.
“We believe there is some increase in people who, because of covid-19, are not able to pay for the items,” Hayes said. “It’s sort of maintained that there may be a slight uptick in need-based stuff, but it’s really difficult to tease that out.”
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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.
Sloane, who asked to be identified by only her first name to avoid potential prosecution, worked in the food industry until the pandemic upended her job. Her partner, who worked in retail, was furloughed for months, then quit in August because it no longer felt safe going back to work. But the resignation meant no unemployment benefits.
“Things are bad: We’re late on bills, we’re late on rent, our car is nine days away from being repossessed,” she said. “I’m used to being very self-sufficient and it’s an awful feeling to suddenly be so desperate.”
Like others interviewed by The Washington Post, Sloane said she tends to target major chains because they’re better able to absorb the losses than small businesses.
Park, of Capitol Supermarket in Washington, D.C., for example, said he briefly considered hiring uniformed security guards to ward against theft, but decided it was too costly for the family-run business, which already has had to cut more than half its staff during the pandemic.
“My distrust has gone up since I see people shoplifting every day,” he said. “I watch the security cameras a lot more often. If we let too many people steal, we’ll have to close.”
Because tracking is spotty, shoplifting is chronically underreported, according to more than a dozen local police departments and sheriff’s offices contacted by The Post. Very few monitor and report shoplifting data publicly, and those that do often don’t keep tabs on what types of items are stolen.
Some store managers said they’ve stopped calling the police for small instances of shoplifting because it’s not worth the time or resources, particularly when store employees also are juggling new responsibilities such as temperature checks and enforcing mask requirements. But many are taking additional precautions: Demand for uniformed security guards and undercover loss prevention experts has risen 35% during the pandemic, according to Zisner of Aegis.
Nearly 26 million adults – or 1 in 8 Americans – reported not having enough food to eat as of mid-November, according to the latest data from the Census Bureau. That figure has climbed steadily during the pandemic, and has hit record highs since the government agency began collecting such data in 1998.
“We’re supposed to be the greatest, richest country in the world, and we don’t have safety nets for when something like this happens?” said Danielle Nierenberg, president and founder of Food Tank, a nonprofit organization focused on food equity and sustainability. “People are being forced to steal when they shouldn’t have to, and that’s a great American tragedy.”
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Alex graduated with a master’s degree in May and was immediately in a bind: no job, no money and, with much of the country still shut down, little hope that anything would change.
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 has a job now, earning $15 an hour, but still struggles to make ends meet. She says she continues to shoplift – something she’d never done before the pandemic – every few weeks.
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.)
Whole Foods did not respond to requests for comment.
Jean, the single mother from Maryland, said she had shoplifted a few times before the pandemic, driving to a Walmart one state over for cans of formula when she couldn’t produce enough breastmilk for her infant son. She stopped once the store began locking up baby formula, which many retailers do because of its high price.
A spokesman for Walmart declined to comment for this report.
But the coronavirus crisis, she said, ushered in a new level of desperation. Finding a job and child care became increasingly difficult. When money became tight, she prioritized rent and car payments over groceries. “My car, my apartment were things that could be taken from me – and then where would that leave me and my son?” she said. “This is going to sound bad, but at least I could try to get food in other ways.”
Her mother sometimes helped, sending a few hundred dollars or using her own food stamps to pay for chicken and frozen peas. That tided her over until July, when she got a big break: a full-time job in a new state making $16 an hour. Jean has health insurance now and donates to the local food pantry.
She hopes she’ll never have to steal again, though she says her sense of security is fleeting.
“I know what it’s like to do everything you can and still not make it,” she said. “And I know it could happen again.”