Student theft increases cost of meal plans

Students reeling from rising tuition bills and meal plan costs may be surprised to learn they inflict some of the pain on themselves — theft from McKinley’s makes a noteworthy impact on the cost of meal plans, creating a ripple effect throughout the Meadville community, according to Michael Zanie, general manager of Parkhurst Dining Services.

Theft impacts McKinley’s financial ties with local businesses and subcontractors. Throughout the year, Parkhurst keeps in contact with other businesses and discusses the role shrinkage plays in profits.

“Local partners get hurt as well because it hurts their profitability and how they need to price things,” Zanie said.

Rebecca Vines, owner of Fresh From The Vines family farm located a short distance from the college, first noticed a discrepancy in her accounting after Parkhurst informed her that four Vines items were stolen within a short period of time. Vines checked her financial records and found that theft made a noticeable dent in her profits.

“It’s hurting everybody, not benefiting them in the short term,” Vines said.

Vines also pointed out many different student groups frequently volunteer at the farm, and such theft damage the relationship between the owners and the student body.

“When [students] take our product, they steal directly from us,” Vines said. “Because of our direct involvement with [Allegheny College], we take it to heart.”

Creative Crust Bakery, however, has not suffered direct profit loss from theft. Owner Viki Allin said her business delivers only eight wholesale sourdough bread loaves to McKinley’s at a time.

“What we don’t bring back, we bill,” Allin said. “If we’re missing seven loaves, we bill for seven loaves.”

The costs are then passed on to Parkhurst, contributing to the incremental but inevitable increases in meal plans.

The price increases caused by theft, along with those caused by other factors such as inflation, productivity, services, hours of operation — and providing services for vegans and vegetarians, as well as students with gluten intolerances, lactose intolerances, and food allergies — add up quickly.

Parkhurst struggles to quantify the loss, citing the difficulty of catching every thief.

“There’s 2,000 students here, so that’s a lot of students, a lot of names, a lot of opportunities,” Zanie said, adding that those students who aren’t caught tend to become bolder. “You’re never quite sure. If you caught one person, does that mean you didn’t catch two? Or ten? […] And the person you did catch, it’s probably not their first time.”

Although inflation drives up meal plan prices more than other factors, thousands of dollars lost to theft contribute to a fraction of increases as well.

“You don’t see hands. You don’t see what’s going on. You just sort of hope for the best,” said Zanie. “You try to stay vigilant, but our main priority during rushes is to get people in lines and get them a good, hot lunch in a timely fashion, because there’s a time crunch.”

McKinley’s employees keep an eye out for possible theft at all times. Parkhurst placed some foods in certain wrappers to indicate to cashiers varying costs of food items and rearranged some of its facilities to keep its products under the watchful eye of station managers.

Students caught slipping prepacked items into their pockets or eating their food before reaching the cash register are asked by cashiers to pay for the items with shop or cash. Their names and ID numbers are taken down and added to a list. Parkhurst reports repeat offenders to the Office of Safety and Security or the Code of Conduct Office.

Although Parkhurst and the Office of Safety and Security expressed reluctance to report exact numbers, the increase in incidents represents either a larger incidence of theft or more vigilant Parkhurst employees.

“This is the first year that I can recall seeing various reports on student thefts from McKinley’s [food],” said Head of Safety and Security Jeff Schneider, in an e-mail. “Seems as if there are more reports this year — or it is being reported more often.”

The Code of Conduct Office reviews and processes complaints from Parkhurst, which Zanie said cuts down on theft.

“It’s gotten better,” said Zanie. “We got to the point in the semester when we started turning in names to the college security office, and when you get on that radar, […] it stops being a prank and starts having consequences on [your] college career.”

Zanie emphasized that Parkhurst does its best to make McKinley’s a safe and welcoming place for students to eat and study, pointing to its variety of options catering to the many different predilections of the student body and its long operating hours.

“This is a place where we want students to feel welcome, to feel at home, to get a good value. We’re not here to be the soup Nazis,” Zanie said. “But, by the same token, when you steal, you’re raising the cost of the program for everybody else. And that gets reflected by what we do and the meal plans’ actual financial costs.”