The End of my Free Food Challenge

As of Sunday, I am officially done with the Free Food Challenge (see last three posts).  This past month a I’ve spent much of my time thinking about from where my food will come next, what events I will attend to get that food, and telling people about the Free Food Challenge.  The challenge has been a great conversation starter. ]

If I tried to do the Free Food Challenge as a freshman at Duke, I think I would have defaulted to taking my Tupperware to the Marketplace—Duke’s East Campus all-you-can-eat dining hall for first year students—and taking enough food that would last for the meals that the meal plan did not cover.  The “stealing” of food was common practice among my peers.  In one of the more memorable instances my freshmen year, a fellow brought in gallon containers to take gallons of milk.

After talking to some members of the current class of freshmen, it appears not much has changed in the past four years, and freshmen are still taking food from the Marketplace.  The only person I know who has adamantly opposes stealing food  from the Marketplace is Gregory LaHood, a classmate of mine who lived in my freshman dorm.  Due to his rather unusual viewpoint, I recently decided to text him to inquire as to his reasoning.  He came up with four justifications for his position that freshman who are on a meal plan should not take extra food from an all-you-can-eat dining hall.

  1. Stealing is stealing. The Marketplace is no different than any other buffet. The price that freshmen are charged for all you can to eat is based on the presumption that there will be so many diners each mean, and they will consume so much food. The price does not contemplate that students would bring ziplocs and Tupperware to take food home.  No business would embrace the buffet model if patrons were allowed to fill containers with food to go.
  1. Stealing food drives up food costs, which results in higher prices for the meal plan. The inflated prices for the meal plan cause students to pay for the food that is stolen by others. In essence, the students who steal food are also stealing from the students who must pay more for the meal plan.
  1. People often argue that they’re not getting their money’s worth for a meal plan unless they steal. Greg does not think it is the right of the customer to decide how much something should or shouldn’t cost. If the student is so concerned about getting the most from the dollars spent, and is willing to steal to ensure the meal plan delivers the bang for the buck, then perhaps the student should not have come to a school that  has an all-you-can-eat meal plan, like Duke, that costs x amount of money. Greg argues that when he goes to the car dealership for service, he does not fill his trunk with the free water and snacks the dealership provides as part of the service experience just because he thinks that the service should be cheaper. That would be ridiculous. Same thing goes for pretty much anything. Is it right to steal the salt and pepper shakers from a restaurant where the price of a steak is $30, to level the playing field with the restaurant who charges only $15 for a steak meal, just because you think that the first restaurant is overcharging for the steak?  I think most Duke students would say no.
  2. Anarchy would ensue if such the freshman mentality about stealing from the Marketplace were applied to the Duke experience as a whole. Students would be stealing paper from printers, stealing furniture from common areas, taking appliances from common kitchens etc. because they did not think they’re getting their money’s worth from a Duke education.

Gregory’s arguments against the theft of Marketplace food would not have resonated with me freshman year. As a freshman, it is more difficult to look at the larger moral picture and to take Greg’s high road — to make a conscious decision not to take what does not belong to you. This would be going against the norm, and the peer culture.  In fact, the culture suggests that the taking of food from the Marketplace is not only accepted, but it is acceptable.  The culture strongly suggests this immorality is moral.

With age comes a better understanding of the issues at play in this situation. No Duke student has the right to feel entitled to steal from the Marketplace, despite assertions that they “deserve it” for paying $60,000 a year to attend this university. The justification of incremental wrongs lead to a blindness of what is moral and what is not.  It can lead to ever-greater deviations from moral behavior.  It can impair our conscience.

Another point, more related to my month on the free food challenge, is that the taking of food from the Marketplace inhibits the incentive to find “free food” at events from which there might be some additional benefit of learning. Free food is offered by organizers to get students to attend a discussion or presentation.  The organizers hope that students who are hungry will attend to eat, but then will stay for the education.  If these same students are stealing food from the Marketplace, then they may not be hungry, and they will skip the educational event.  That would be a shame given all that I have learned in this month just by attending the “free food” programs.