When police officer Matt Lima responded to a shoplifting incident at a grocery store in Somerset, Massachusetts five days before Christmas, he knew there was something different about this call.
A loss prevention associate at Stop & Shop informed Lima that two women with two young children were accused of slipping items into bags at the self-checkout kiosk instead of scanning them, according to a news release from the Somerset Police Department. The alleged theft was caught after an employee printed a transaction receipt and noticed that numerous items were missing from the store.
Lima pulled one of the women aside to hear her story.
"The woman I talked to, she explained she was working, but the mother of the children was not working and had some other family issues going on and that what she had taken was Christmas dinner for the kids," Lima told NBC affiliate WJAR.
Lima, who has two young daughters at home, said he knew he needed to do something to help the women buy Christmas dinner instead of pressing criminal charges. "I have two girls myself, similar on age to the two girls that were there, so it kind of struck me a little bit," he said.
After the officer learned the stolen groceries had been restocked on the shelves, he purchased a $250 gift card with his own money so the family could shop at another Stop & Shop location and make sure their pantry was stocked for the holidays.
"Obviously, this family was in need and I can't imagine having to make the decision to go to Stop & Shop and just only pay for what I can afford -- or do I go there and try to take things for Christmas dinner for the kids?" Lima told WJAR. "They were very thankful, they were kind of shocked. I'm sure a lot of people in that same situation would be thinking that there was going to be a different outcome, and maybe they would be arrested or have to go to court."
Lima said he couldn't justify pressing criminal charges since all of the items were groceries. The women were instead banned from that location and were allowed to leave.
More than 50 million people, including 17 million children, were likely to experience food insecurity by the end of 2020, according to Feeding America. The hunger crisis, which has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, has led to an increased reliance on food banks, where people have been waiting in lines for hours to get relief.
Somerset Police chief George McNeil said he's proud of Lima for making the right decision to help the family.
“I would like to personally commend Officer Lima for his actions,” McNeil said in a statement. “His actions exemplify what it means to protect and serve the members of our community. When faced with a difficult situation in which a family was trying to provide a meal for their kids, he made the generous decision to not press charges and instead ensured that they would have a Christmas dinner they could enjoy."