A peculiar rumor has been floating around the Cornell campus for last few years, the origin and duration of which nobody is exactly sure. It’s one of those unwritten anecdotes bandied about from dorm rooms to lecture halls, never confirmed yet often taken at face value as fact.
The story, replete with varying degrees and forms, goes something like this: Cornell Dining preemptively charges students for food and goods they are assumed to steal throughout the course of a semester. The propagation of this belief has lead some students to justify cafeteria theft.
“If they’re going to charge me for it anyway, why shouldn’t I steal it?” one freshman, requesting anonymity for fear of legal recourse, asked rhetorically.
The value of items taken from the dining halls range from the harmless to the somewhat more serious. One freshman male admitted to having “stolen a couple of mugs and some cheap silverware.”
“I take cereal, milk, bagels on a daily basis,” one freshman female added.
One student said that she and her friends “took a cake for my friend’s birthday,” but that it was “OK because I know that they charge us for stealing anyway.”
“There is absolutely no charge [in the meal plan] for stolen food,” Assistant Director of Cornell Dining Richard Anderson said, directly refuting the claim of many students. Anderson suspects the “urban legend” might have originated from a non-refundable $50 “administrative fee … charged once an academic year” to pay for basic administrative services such as the electrical bill and administrative assistants’ salaries.
When asked why the $50 administrative fee is not simply folded into the meal plan’s general cost, Anderson cited the consumer. “It’s a better value to the student” if the administrative fee is kept separate, Anderson said, because it lets student “know why they are paying more … in the event of a rate increase.”
Nevertheless, some students still doubt that they are not in some way being charged for the ongoing pilfering. “If I were the administration, I would factor in lost revenue due to stealing … how could they not?” Jason Boada ’13 said.
Ee Hou '13 concurred, “They must in some way account for kids stealing.”
Anderson, however, says there is no need to charge for cafeteria theft because it “is not a major issue” for Cornell Dining. Although records on theft are not available, Anderson said that it is certainly “not rampant or out of control,” adding that much of the stolen goods are returned by students at the end of the year.
The Robert Purcell Community Center’s Dining Manager, Levon Brewer, went further, claiming that he is “not aware of any incidents of theft.”
“Eating here is like eating at your grandmother’s house,” Brewer said, “we have an excellent relationship with our students and are yet to see them take beyond the allowed piece of fruit [or cone of ice cream].”
Contrary to Brewer’s assessment, RPCC’s Student Manager Matt Zika ’10 said that he sees petty theft “regularly.”
Zika said he has seen “entire cakes and pizzas” stolen throughout his three-year employment. “Once, I stopped a kid trying to take the metal sign [including its 3 foot base and pole] that directs students to the dishbelt,” Zika said, “Though I couldn’t fathom why he would have wanted it.”
Zika also said that he sees “other bizarre” thefts all the time, including one incident in which “an entire bag of cereal was stolen in the two seconds I [was emptying the dispenser and] had my back turned to [the cereal].”
The similar struggles colleges and universities have had with cafeteria theft suggest the pervasiveness of Zika’s experiences. The Daily Princetonian reported in February that each residential college must replace 1,900 to 2,500 utensils each year. Last fall, Carleton College banned backpacks from their cafeterias due to rampant theft.
At Vassar College, one student said that the freshmen and sophomores on the Frisbee team are responsible for “guest swiping upperclassmen [and helping them steal] bagels and other food with Tupperware … in exchange for alcohol.”
To combat these seemingly inevitable problems, Middlebury College allows its students to take as much food or as many dishes as they want home — with the faith that the dishes will be returned eventually. Yet as Middlebury freshman David Martin attests, dish taking has achieved a “de facto legality” because most students do not make the effort to return them.
Attempts to enforce punishment for stealing, such as those at Brown University, have proven hard to enforce. “Despite the penalties, kids still steal all the time,” Brown freshman Elizabeth Landau said.
For some students, stealing from the cafeteria is justified by what they see as an unjust system, even without the specific rationale of a predetermined charge for stealing. Felipe Restrepo ’13 drove home the point: “The meal plans are so expensive … they have no right telling us not to take food.”