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Houston Hall Dining Credit: Alexandra Fleischman

During his freshman year, John* stole meals from under Houston Hall every day from October through January, until an employee finally caught him.

“I came to school with a two to three-thousand dollar meal plan,” John, a student who boasts strict morals, explained. “But Commons and Hill were inconvenient to get to, so I used up my dining dollars quickly.”

According to Bon Appetit Management Company Resident District Manager Stephen Scardina, inventory monitoring has revealed no significant upturn in shoplifting this year. Yet John is one of many Penn students who steal salads, drinks, pasta and other foods regularly from Houston.

“I would never steal from an honest man making an honest living at a food cart,” John said. “I stole because the dining plan makes you spend money on meals instead of letting you use only dining dollars. It’s a scam — I felt wronged.”

Jessica*, a College junior, doesn’t have quite as developed a justification. She began stealing last year when she found out that “almost everyone” she knew did it also.

“I spend so much money going to this school,” she said, “and I don’t have extra money on my PennCard.”

When she has time to wait in line, Jessica usually buys several items and steals others so she doesn’t suffer from as much guilt.

“Especially when you buy some stuff, it’s really easy,” Jessica explained. “Stay calm, don’t be obvious and just walk up the stairs.”

“I understand why people steal if they’ve already paid for a dining plan,” Nursing sophomore Julie Sternbach said. However, Sternbach herself asserted she would never steal from any establishment.

Amateur thieves, who are often occasional offenders, commonly steal items that are small and easy to transport, according to Criminology professor Freda Adler. This description fits dozens of Houston’s products — an orange, a bottle of water, even a small container of french fries that can easily be stuffed into a backpack or casually swiped.

While most people take food without paying because they have gripes with the dining system or don’t feel like they have the extra cash, others commit theft simply for the thrill.

“I just do it because I like the rush,” said a College sophomore who preferred to remain anonymous due to the ramifications of theft. “When it’s really crowded, I just grab sushi and leave. It’s kind of fun just to know I can.”

Indeed, a propensity to steal is not necessarily dependent on what one needs, Adler explained. She added that moral constraints are not always driven by socioeconomic status.

“It’s hard for some vendors to believe that Penn students would steal,” Adler explained. “But there’s no reason to assume that sophistication and education govern moral makeup.”

Adding employees to the floor and making students aware of security cameras are both necessary and effective tactics, Adler noted.

“If you can’t change the person, change the environment,” she said.

Surveillance cameras and signs that notify students of the cameras’ existence were added to the entire Houston Hall facility last year. According to Scardina, “we do inspect tapes when theft is suspected.”

John recalled that the only footage Houston employees screened when he was caught was the tape from that day.

“I told them I didn’t steal often and that I’d make it up to them by catching other people who stole, so they were pretty appreciative and let me go after I paid,” he said.

For weeks, John lost sleep over the thought that they’d discover his past offenses.

“But would they really go into archives? I walked out in different places every day,” he said. “I was worried, but not worried enough.”

John partially attributed his good fortune to the positive relationships he had garnered with Houston employees.

An anonymous varsity athlete, who was reprimanded for drinking a bottle of soda before checking out, believes he was profiled as a “jock” and punished accordingly.

“One lady definitely always singled out athletes,” he said. “I could feel her eyes on my back even when I couldn’t see her.”

Though some of his friends had to complete community service hours after they were confronted for stealing food, the athlete did not get in significant trouble with the University. However, he was verbally reprimanded by his coach and asked to sit out for a game.

“I haven’t stolen anything since, and I won’t again,” he said, “but it’s still really easy.”

While public embarrassment and the prospect of punishment have deterred some students, theft is still commonplace under Houston.

“Allow the freshman meal plan to be 100-percent Dining Dollars,” John suggested as a solution.

“They should lower the price of food,” Jessica proposed.

“Vendors just have to know that there’s an inquisitiveness for many people,” Adler said. “They cannot assume we are in a protected environment.”

A solution? “More people watching during mealtimes, aware, on the lookout,” she said.

* Pseudonyms were used in this article to protect the identities of two students.

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