Thursday, February 9, 2023

Food theft reporting on the rise

By Aleksandra Sidorova

University Police received seven reports of food being stolen from the Sundowner, a dining hall at SUNY Plattsburgh, this semester. 

The number is “a little high,” UP Inspector Seth Silver said. However, Silver said he thinks the number of reports increased not due to an uptick in instances of food larcenies, but due to dining hall staff’s diligence in reporting.

Sundowner and Kent Cafe see attempts to steal food almost daily. 

Cathy Boire, Kent Cafe supervisor, said food gets stolen more often toward the end of the year, when students start to run low on money. The fridges and shelves are located in plain sight, so Boire can usually clearly see any attempts to steal food from behind the counter. She said staff has pulled students aside to apprehend them for attempting to steal food. These apprehensions have not resulted in any report made to UP.

There are one to two larceny attempts occurring at Sundowner every night, Sundowner Supervisor John Ashline said.

The most commonly-stolen items at Sundowner are drinks, Ashline said. Usually students stuff the desired items in their coat pockets. Sometimes students simply walk out with the items during busy times when supervisors are looking the other way. Another way to “steal” is consuming the snacks, soup, drinks or ice cream before reaching the cashiers. Sometimes the only evidence left behind is spills and wrappers, Ashline said. 

Larcenies get reported to UP only if the student successfully leaves the establishment without being confronted or puts up a fight. Ashline said he thinks students are stealing food “for the thrill” or “really wanted something” while low on dining dollars. Silver agreed, but said most thefts seem to be “honest mistakes” coming from forgetting to pay for the items or not understanding the meal plan system. The students are asked to pay for the stolen food and will have a judicial charge against them upon multiple offenses.

Police reports do not indicate theft of food exceeding $20 in value. One report was made over a cup of coffee a student drank, but did not pay for. Silver said dealing with the larcenies is not UP’s highest priority.

“On a college campus with a couple thousand students living on campus and people coming here to work and to do things every day, someone stealing a cup of coffee or a sandwich — it’s not right and it’s an issue  — but it’s not number one on our list,” Silver said. “Yes, technically it may be a crime, but it’s not the crime of the century.”

Christopher Mihalyi, resident district manager for Chartwells, the company providing dining services to SUNY Plattsburgh, said Chartwells does not “condone theft in any way, shape or form.” 

These thrills may have less thrilling consequences. Stealing food and drinks makes prices for meal plans and individual items rise because the establishment “loses out on money,” Ashline and Mihalyi said.

“It’s terrible,” a cashier at Sundowner said. “[Students stealing] are the ones who make the prices go up.”

The cashier pointed out that a box of Junior Caramels costs $5, while costing no more than $2 at stores beyond the SUNY Plattsburgh campus. Some snacks, though, like M&M’s, cost roughly the same as their retail counterparts.

Every stolen item is a “$0 sale,” meaning Chartwells doesn’t get back the money for the original price of the item itself and labor in handling it, Mihalyi said. However, food thefts are not the sole driver of prices.

“Students would have to steal an awful lot to impact pricing changes, but that doesn’t mean it is not a contributing factor in negotiating how well it’s performing,” Mihalyi said.

Although students pay for their meal plans upfront before the semester starts, they function similarly to checking accounts. Chartwells does not get money for the food items unless a charge is registered on the student’s account with College Auxiliary Services, so there is still some involved even if the student doesn’t spend any.

A “late night” meal* at Sundowner has a $8.75 value, and 10 years ago was valued at $8, Ashline said. This difference marks a 9.4% increase, compared to a cumulative 29.8% inflation rate since 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Inflation Calculator. At the same rate, a late night meal would have a value of $10.36 — $1.61 more than it is now. However, adjusting the value of a “meal” would make meal plan prices go up, Mihalyi said.

*Unlike a meal exchange that requires the purchase of a specific set of items, a “late night” swipe allows students the flexibility of purchasing any set of items amounting to a certain value at the Sundowner.

Setting prices at college dining locations is “never as straightforward as people think,” Mihalyi said. Chartwells calculates the value of a meal using a formula that blends the ever-increasing cost of food products and the rate of inflation determined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It is not Chartwells that sets the meal plan prices, either, but CAS, with some advising from Chartwells. Once a price is set for the academic year, it does not change despite the fluctuating costs of the products Chartwells buys. 

“You have to kind of rely on historical data and the ability to understand the trends of how much food and labor is going to cost in order to best project that we have enough money at the beginning of the semester from when students purchase meal plans to carry us through to the end,” Mihalyi said.

While food thefts can be “honest mistakes” or “for the thrill,” Silver and Mihalyi know what pushes some students to steal is food insecurity. In that case, UP and Chartwells refer students to resources, such as additional express dollars, additional meal swipes called “food insecurity meals” and the food pantry, now called the Cardinal Cupboard. 

Students can access these resources by reaching out to Director of Special Programs Michele Carpentier by emailing her at carpenmm@plattsburgh.edu or visiting her office at 110F Angell College Center. Chartwells also offers help with budgeting meal plans.

“Food insecurity is real, and I want nothing more than to make sure that students are taken care of from a dining perspective for the entire time they’re here,” Mihalyi said.

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