Stealing Food When You’re Hungry. Should It Be a Crime?

by Alexina Cather, MPH
By Gary Stoller

“People, do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy himself when he is starving.” Proverbs 6:30-31. 

This ancient biblical passage may have come to life in July when New York City police officers chose not to arrest a woman suspected of shoplifting at Whole Foods in Union Square and, instead, paid for her food.

This was not an isolated incident, and it raises important societal questions, according to a two-month investigation by the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center. Should food theft by an impoverished, hungry person be a crime? And why would someone steal when emergency food resources are available? 

Anti-hunger-group officials who were interviewed agree that no hungry person should be charged for food theft and say that programs supplying food to the hungry are insufficient. But law-enforcement authorities in New York and some other U.S. cities refuse to discuss or divulge their food-theft policies. Abroad, court decisions have been handed down in favor of hungry people who stole food.

“If people are stealing food so they can eat, I don’t think they should be prosecuted,” says Joel Berg, the CEO of Hunger Free America, a New York City-based nonprofit organization with a goal to end domestic hunger. 

Shep Owen, the senior director of relief and humanitarian affairs for the international organization Food for the Hungry, agrees. 

“Food is the most fundamental of human rights, and anyone who is pushed to the point of stealing for food is very desperate,” he says. 

More than 37.2 million people in 14 million U.S. households were food insecure at some time last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). That means, at some time during the year, one of every nine households lacked the resources to provide enough food for all family members.  

In New York, more than 1 million people live in food-insecure households, according to Hunger Free America

Following the Whole Foods incident, the three New York City Police Department officers who paid for the suspected stolen food said at a press conference that they had acted similarly in other such incidents.  

Myles Werntz, a scholar at Baylor University’s Texas Hunger Initiative, applauds their actions.

“Policing should be about helping the community grow and flourish, not only about monitoring infractions of the law,” says Werntz, who is also an associate professor of Christian ethics at Hardin-Simmons University. “By paying for someone’s food rather than incarcerating them, the officers were contributing to the good of society as a whole rather than only the good of some of society.” 

The NYPD and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, however, did not respond to Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center’s questions about their policies in such matters. And the district attorney’s office wouldn’t say whether it has handled food-theft cases. 

Oren Yaniv, a spokesman for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, says many petit larceny cases (stealing an item valued at $1,000 or less) are being diverted before they arrive in court under a program called Project Reset, which allows individuals arrested for certain misdemeanors to complete a half-day course. Then the district attorney’s office declines prosecution, and the individuals “never have to appear in court,” he says.

When cases involving the shoplifting of food do reach court, they are “almost always resolved at arraignment with an ACD (adjournment in contemplation of dismissal),” Yaniv says. “That means they get dismissed after six months if the defendant doesn’t commit another offense.”

In Seattle — a city that claims 13 percent of its adults experience food insecurity — the Seattle Police Department also declined to discuss food-theft enforcement policies.  

In Dallas County, Texas, the district attorney’s office will not prosecute cases proven to be food theft for necessity and involving items costing less than $750, says Kimberlee Leach, a spokeswoman for the office. Feeding America statistics show that about 17 percent of the county’s residents experience food insecurity.

In an April letter to Dallas County residents, John Creuzot, the county’s district attorney, explained why he will not prosecute thefts of necessity. 

“Study after study shows that when we arrest, jail and convict people for non-violent crimes

committed out of necessity, we only prevent that person from gaining the stability necessary to lead a law-abiding life,” he wrote. “Criminalizing poverty is counter-productive for our community’s health and safety.” 

In 2016, Italy’s highest court, the Supreme Court of Cassation, ruled that it isn’t a crime when someone in desperate need steals a small amount of food. The court was deciding on a 2011 case involving a homeless man who had been caught stealing a sausage and cheese from a Genoa supermarket, The man put the stolen items, worth less than $5, under his jacket before paying for breadsticks. He was arrested, convicted and given a six-month jail sentence. The high court overturned that decision, according to CNN, because the man had an immediate and essential need for nourishment.

“The condition of the defendant, and the circumstances in which the seizure of merchandise took place, prove that he took possession of that small amount of food in the face of an immediate and essential need for nourishment, acting therefore in a state of necessity,” said the court, according to CNN.

Some Italians praised the court for making a humanitarian decision in a country beset with poverty. 

An “economic crisis” dramatically increased the number of citizens, especially the elderly, forced to steal in supermarkets to make ends meet,” Carlo Rienzi, the president of an Italian consumer rights group, said, according to a British newspaper, the Guardian.

Various incidents of food theft by hungry Americans have been reported in the media.

*In April 2019, according to CBS News, a 7-Eleven store owner in Toledo, Ohio, caught a youth stuffing his pockets with food and was about to call police. The owner asked the youth why he was stealing, and the youth replied that he and his younger brother were hungry.

The store owner then filled a bag with food, gave it to the youth and let him go on his way. The owner said that his Indian culture taught him that God will bless those who give food to a hungry person. 

*An Arkansas woman climbed through a police substation’s kitchen window last December and was caught taking microwaveable popcorn packets, according to a local TV station, KLRT. 

The woman, who said she broke in “to get some food,” was arrested and charged with burglary. 

*A North Carolina woman was arrested at her home in November 2017 after the Hillsborough Police Department reviewed Food Lion security tapes and charged her with stealing $36 worth of food. The woman was unemployed because of a brain injury, the Epoch Times reported, and she and her three children hadn’t eaten in three days.  

The officers who made the arrest looked into her refrigerator and later bought her $140 worth of food. The woman said she had reached out in vain to religious organizations before deciding to shoplift. “Nobody would give us anything,” she told WRAL-TV, an NBC affiliate in Raleigh.

*In 2014, an Alabama grandmother said she put three of a grocery store’s eggs in her pocket, because her grandchildren hadn’t eaten in two days, and she was desperate. “I actually thought that if I didn’t feed those babies, they were going to die,” she told CBS affiliate WIAT.  

A police officer called to the scene by grocery store personnel didn’t arrest the woman whose six-member family was dependent on disability and welfare checks, including one that was lost in the mail. Instead, the officer bought her a carton of eggs, and the Tarrant Police Department delivered two truckloads of groceries to the woman’s apartment after collecting donations. 

Incidents of food theft by hungry people are not common, says Marlysa Gamblin, a domestic policy advisor for the Washington-based Bread for the World Institute, which provides policy analysis on hunger and strategies to end it.  

“The proper question to ask when people steal food is: ‘Why?’ ” Gamblin says. “Is it a jobs issue, whereby this individual may not have access to a living wage that will pay enough to provide for the household? Is it perhaps a lack of affordable care, whereby this individual is paying a lot in healthcare expenses and simply cannot afford to pay anything else, including rent and food?” 

Poor access to food is why people are hungry, says Owen of Food for the Hungry. 

“Sadly, people are not hungry for lack of enough food in the world,” he says. “Usually, people are hungry because they are not able to access food — either grown or purchased — because of systemic injustice, living in fragile and vulnerable contexts or personal tragedy.”

Lauren Reid, a spokeswoman for the California Association of Food Banks, says California produces much of the nation’s vegetables, fruits and nuts and has more than enough food to feed all its residents, and yet, one of every eight Californians currently struggles with food insecurity.  

“Our society’s and government’s great challenge is ensuring that this bounty is allocated to all who need it,” Reid says. “California has increased its investments in food banks and nutrition programs but still has a significant way to go to ensure that all are nourished.”

About 38 million low-income Americans receive benefits to buy food at stores from the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — the nation’s largest food-assistance program, formerly known as the food-stamp program. Food banks and soup kitchens, often run by charitable or religious organizations, also provide food in many cities and towns during certain days and hours. 

According to a 2018 USDA survey, about 56 percent of food-insecure households had participated in SNAP, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or the National School Lunch Program during the month prior to the survey. 

Federal expenditures for USDA’s 15 food and nutrition-assistance programs totaled $96.1 billion in fiscal 2018 — 3 percent less than the previous fiscal year and nearly 12 percent less than the record high of $109.2 billion in fiscal 2013. 

The SNAP program is essential but inadequate, says Berg of Hunger Free America. The program allots an average of $1.37 per meal — an amount “nearly impossible to create a fully balanced meal,” he says.

Households with SNAP assistance report that they run out of food by the third week of each month, says Gamblin of the Bread for the World Institute.

In addition, many undocumented immigrants, new immigrants and low-income working people whose income is just above SNAP’s guidelines aren’t eligible for the program.  

Applying for SNAP benefits is more difficult than filing income taxes, Berg says. “It’s an onerous process — you have to submit a boatload of documents, more documents than you have to submit for your taxes. It makes you feel like you’re dirt for needing this help.”

Although the woman suspected of shoplifting at Whole Foods in New York City in July apparently needed help and cried when police officers paid for the food in her possession, their actions raise questions about whether police should make such on-the-spot decisions and refuse to make an arrest. 

“Police inevitably must make decisions about when to — and when not to — arrest someone who appears to be violating the law,” says Sherry Colb, a professor at Cornell Law School. “Police on the highway allow most mildly speeding vehicles to drive right by, while choosing to pull over one or another based on a flexible and often unknown set of criteria.”

Daniel Filler, the dean of Drexel University’s law school, says police officers make discretionary judgments about arrests all the time. 

“It’s at the core of their job,” he says. “We need to be concerned that they are not basing these decisions on illegal or problematic bases – for example, racial bias or other similar things – but we’ll never stop the use of such discretion. Officers often do some of their most important work by exercising discretion well.”

Police officers “may have a better understanding of individual lives on the street than policy makers and lab researchers,” Filler says.

And, according to Colb, allowing police to exercise discretion hasn’t led to legal chaos. “The law implicitly allows police to exercise discretion, and the Supreme Court has said that it is consistent with the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. It seems to me an act of kindness to choose not to arrest someone who is stealing food because she is hungry.” 

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams also believes an arrest in such a situation is unwarranted. 

“The lack of quality, affordable food for the most vulnerable in our city is a very real issue, and it needs to be addressed head-on,” Adams, a former New York City Police Department (NYPD) captain, says. “The NYPD officers showed compassion to a woman who was clearly struggling, and they should be commended for that. Hunger isn’t a crime. Our city’s failure to address it is.”

In August, 70 mayors sent a letter to a SNAP administrator protesting a Trump administration proposal to prevent states from giving benefits to those whose savings and other assets make them — based on administration standards — ineligible for aid. According to the mayors’ letter, more than three million people would lose their assistance because of the proposal. 

The majority of people receiving SNAP benefits are children, the elderly and disabled people, and the average monthly benefit per person, according to August 2019 USDA data, is $127 a month. The average monthly benefit in New Hampshire is $98. It is $135 in New York, $134 in California, $127 in Illinois and $118 in Texas. 

“SNAP is not only a critical resource in the fight against hunger and food insecurity but also lifts people out of poverty,” the 70 mayors, mostly Democrats, wrote.

“Our nation cannot remain globally competitive,” they wrote, “if our children do not have enough to eat; if our citizens do not have access to affordable health care; if housing and other basic needs are priced out of reach, and if adults who are willing and able to work cannot find jobs that will help them support their families.”

Reading List

NYC Food Policy Center Resources and Background

Gary Stoller is a multi-award-winning journalist who was a USA TODAY investigative editor for 17 years and a founding journalist of Conde Nast Traveler magazine. His articles have won awards from several journalism organizations, including the National Press Club, and been quoted on CNN, ABC’s Good Morning America, NBC’s Today Show, Oprah and other TV and radio shows. He also has published two book series for Random House and Simon & Schuster.

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