Martha Romero guides husband Salvador Prieto as he drives and dumps a load of mulch at their Hass avocado trees; she’ll then toss the mulch into place near the tree trunks and under the canopy, in Somis, CA, on Nov 15, 2018. Mexican and Central American immigrants are severely impacted by food insecurity. The Romero farm works to provide ethnic produce to Californians. Photo credit: Lance Cheung/USDA Flickr

Food insecurity linked to growing grocery store theft in Los Angeles

Smash-and-grabs and flash mob robberies highlight a wave of crimes since the pandemic, but a more common theft shows distressing signs in the economy. Shoplifting at grocery stores is on the rise.

Folded into the spectrum of thefts at department stores and auto parts outlets, stealing food is quite common, though remains under-reported. Many investigations point to crime rings targeting clothes and jewelry retailers, but a patron stealing chicken or steak receives less attention. During the pandemic, there were reports of displaced persons swiping food off shelves. Still, the homeless are one of many who have increasingly taken food without paying for it. American hunger is real and rising.

While shopping at a Ralph’s market in the West Athens neighborhood, I witnessed two women tussling with a security guard over produce they stashed away. Breaking free from the watchman’s grasp, they ran into a waiting car then sped off, leaving the guard to take down their license plate number. 

The women looked to be mothers who stopped at the food depot for some items. Donned in bonnets and casual house clothes, they seemed to be one of the many patrons at the South Los Angeles location. In reality, they make up the growing number of petty theft offenders in a city dealing with a gross wealth gap and severe food security.

This is American hunger. It is real and it is rising. 

A new study by Public Exchange, a research-based initiative at USC Dornslife reported a more drastic spike in food following the global health crisis. Findings showed 24.3 percent or 809,798 households experienced food insecurity in July 2022. Children lived in about 4 out of the10 households.

“Due to systemic biases and injustices, some populations are much more vulnerable than others, which became especially clear during the COVID-19 pandemic,” concluded in an L.A. County report on food access.

Cassandra Loftlin raised the point that “skyrocketing prices of food” have resulted in even more food insecurity across a range of households. “This holiday season, people are looking for other dinner options than turkey and ham because meat has gotten so expensive.” Loftlin, a chef and anthropologist, recently launched the series, Fcuk the Food System, an exploration of the agricultural industrial complex. While she looks at the southeast region of the U.S., there are common threads in food insecurity.

Similar to Loftlin’s predictions, the Public Exchange report said that food insecurity is “linked to poor nutrition, mental health challenges, and an increased risk for chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.”

To address the issue, L.A. County launched a Food Equity Roundtable, a collective of agencies, non-profit organizations and academic houses committed to alleviating chronic food insecurity in the area. Swati Chandra, the director at the roundtable, proposed that the “powerhouse cross-sector team” will work to “identify and address inequities and gaps in our food systems.”

A major part of the problem is criminalizing residents who take food due to hunger. In California, attempting to shoplift $950 or less is charged as a misdemeanor with up to six months in jail. Therefore shoplifting food to eat has the same brevity of taking jewelry. For some, that is criminal in itself.

“Food is a basic human right,” Cassandra Loftlin told Ark Republic. Loftlin, a chef and anthropologies recently launched the series, Fcuk the Food System, an exploration of the agricultural industrial complex. “Food is a necessity and should be a common everyday good that is not to be bought, sold, and traded in the same cavalier manner as gold or copper.”

With growing issues across the U.S., the pilot program in L.A. County comes with a significant expectation to provide a template for other cities. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that 10.2 percent or 13.5 million households were food insecure at some time during 2021.  A disproportionate number affected are Black and Latino. It is estimated that 33.8 million people lived in food-insecure households in that same year.

Although the holiday season often sees an increase of philanthropic efforts for those who are without a regular food source, the most worrisome time occurs between the high-activity giving.

Amara Brown is the communication strategist for Black Farmers Index.

Amara Brown focuses on health, food and mommy news.

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