When I was 10 — two years after my father left and my mother was struggling to make ends meet, working days collecting payments at the power plant, and evenings cleaning houses — I attended a Sunday school class on the ten commandments. And when we got to the “Thou shalt not steal” bit, kids asked all sorts of Bart Simpson-like questions, and brought up a number of scenarios when stealing would be a forgivable sin; most of them had to with stealing food for your starving family. All the kids in the class shrugged it off, most of them feeling confident that they would never find themselves in that sort of situation.
I didn’t say a word, because I was within a stone’s throw of that moral line. My father wasn’t paying child support, and finding an empty fridge and cupboards really wasn’t all that uncommon in my home. That same church provided us with many trips to the grocery store, and I honestly wondered if we’d be forced to steal food at some point.
I couldn’t help but think back on this formative time, and moral lesson, when reading about the escalating problem of food insecurity in the U.S. right now. According to a recent report by The Washington Post, “an estimated 54 million Americans will struggle with hunger this year, a 45 percent increase from 2019 … 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.” And there is no relief in sight. Congress has yet to act on a relief bill, leaving many Americans with little option but to steal food.
“We’re seeing an increase in low-impact crimes,” Jeff Zisner, chief executive of workplace security firm Aegis, told the Post. “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.”
Stealing to feed your family has to be one of the most heartbreaking situations imaginable. Yes, there is a lot of promise right now with approved vaccines being distributed currently. But we are also heading into what many experts are saying will be a long winter, and COVID cases will continue to rise as cold weather sets in. What this all means is that many more cities will be enforcing lock downs, and unemployment is sure to wax and wane, depending on COVID cases, never really getting better for a long period of time.
Hunger relief non-profit Feeding America says that the U.S. is facing an unprecedented level of child hunger, and that an estimated 15.6% of all households are facing a food shortage. To make matters worse, several federally-funded programs are running out of funding — like the Farmers to Families program, which has supplied food boxes to families in need during the pandemic, but is set to lapse on December 31st. And food banks across the nation are slammed with record-breaking demand. In an interview with NPR, food sourcing manager of New Orleans’ Second Harvest Food Bank, Emily Slazer, said, “We’re seeing clients who are sleeping in their cars, arriving on site at 2, 3 in the morning, sometimes even the night before … It’s just a stunning and heartbreaking visual to see so many members of our community who are hungry.”
One of the saddest stories in the Post‘s report was from a woman named Jean, in Maryland. Jean was juggling college, work, and childcare when her daycare suddenly closed, and she had to quit her job to care for her child. Because she quit, she was unable to get unemployment benefits. Eventually 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&Ms. 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.’”
According to Yahoo News, however, many store managers are not reporting small instances of shoplifting to police. Some claimed they’re just too busy making sure other COVID precautions and safety measures are being carried out and followed, such as temperature checks and mask regulations.
At the end of the day, the thing that’s driving people to shoplift is hunger and desperation — and who can blame them? What lengths would you go to if you couldn’t feed your children?
The sad reality in all of this is that so much of it could be prevented. The COVID relief stimulus package that was passed early in the year has long ago run out, and families are left to make decisions they wouldn’t otherwise because unemployment is at record highs. People are struggling, and it’s coming out in situations like above, where a single mother is forced to steal food in her son’s stroller.
Congress needs to act. They need to put aside bickering, and partisan politics, and pass a stimulus bill now that can help struggling families not commit crimes that are rooted in simply trying to secure food — a basic human right. We as a nation should be able to do better than this. Yes, this is a hard time. But we should be able to help our fellow struggling Americans eat. That is truly the very least we can do as a nation.
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