Theft at Tu Mercado on the rise
Administration and student workers discuss stealing at Tu Merc
Nicole Kuhn | Asst. News Editor | The USD Vista
Some might joke that there are two main frustrations at University of San Diego: the cost of tuition and $8 avocado toast. Places such as La Paloma and Tu Mercado are known for high prices and long lines, so food becomes susceptible to theft and has become a major issue for USD Dining Services.
Manager of Tu Mercado, Cinthia Salas sees theft often and noticed that most students steal food by putting it in their backpack or simply leaving without paying.
“What I see more than others is when I go and charge them, the people that were going to steal, and I see their cards they have a lot of money a lot more than $1,000 in dining more than others who are struggling to pay and they have the money,” Salas said. “Some of them are in the athletic department and they feel entitled to that so sometimes money is not the issue.”
Salas said that money isn’t always the main reason students are stealing — but high prices and long lines are also factors.
“It’s always during lunch,” Salas said. “One time it was eight people in one hour, so you can only imagine what is going on the rest of the day. We are working hard to make the lines faster.”
Salas explained that when she sees a student stealing, she doesn’t try to blame them. Instead, she confronts them about paying for the item.
“For right now what we do is I try to talk to them,” Salas said. “I usually say, ‘Excuse me you need to pay for that,’ and they always come back and pay. But there was an incident where I did have to call Public Safety and they took it from there. We passed it along from Public Safety and I don’t know what happened after that [due to privacy issues].”
Salas said it’s especially difficult when her student employees are confronted with the issue about their peers stealing. Sophomore Michael Apostol, a student worker at Tu Mercado, works morning shifts and said the issue is mostly prevalent during this time, especially when a lot of employees aren’t working. Apostol said when students are confronted by the manager on duty oftentimes their card is taken and charged for the item they stole. A majority of the time they have plenty of dining dollars, and Apostol confirmed that in most cases money isn’t an issue for students.
“I’ve seen my supervisors approach the person asking them if they paid for the item and ask for a receipt,” Apostol said. “In most cases they’ll ask what’s in their pocket and the person will pull out what they took. They [managers] usually say, ‘We will call Public Safety if this happens again.’ But I haven’t actually seen Public Safety ever come.”
Loryn Johnson, Director of Marketing for USD Auxiliary Services, stated that when students are caught they are handed over to Public Safety, and their name and information is given to Student Affairs. The student will then have a trial held in front of a student committee.
“First, you have to physically see the person doing it and then you have to confront them,” Johnson said. “Then, of course, they can just walk out the door. Unfortunately in many situations it isn’t because they don’t have the money, [but because] the line is long.”
Johnson says her main concern is how much students are paying for their food on campus.
“We’re always trying to come up with ways to have a very frugal budget so we can provide food and services and meal plans for students that are more affordable,” Johnson said. “A lot of people don’t realize that our meal plans are the lowest-cost meal plans amongst all of our college and university peers.”
Johnson also debunked the myth about the $200 some students believe USD takes out of tuition to cover theft. Johnson explained that as an auxiliary service, no money comes from tuition or student fees. Instead, they manage their own budget to purchase food and provide staffing.
“I had heard yesterday from one of my student workers that there is already money taken out of your tuition that is set aside to cover theft, and I thought first of all that’s illegal,” Johnson said. “So I think to clarify, that is not true. None of the food or products comes out of students’ tuition; it’s all a completely separate budget.”
Some students argue that high tuition costs justify theft, but Johnson argued against this point.
“Dining Services is responsible for creating our own budget, and so we don’t get money from the university but we’re responsible to give money back to the university every year that then goes towards students and student programs and services,” Johnson said. “That is one thing that we’d like to let students be aware of — the fact that we are not getting any money from tuition and we’re not getting any money from any student fees. Dining Services is responsible for creating our own budget and coming up with the money to purchase food.”
Junior Hillary Guerrero thinks the stealing has a lot to do with the price of the food on campus.
“I don’t think people are willing to pay five dollars for a hummus cup or a granola bar when they can easily take it without getting caught,” Guerrero said.
Guerrero also pointed out that in some dining areas, such as Tu Mercado, students are not allowed to use dining dollars toward some of the produce.
“I think it would be helpful if you could use dining dollars [on all items] in Tu Merc and then people wouldn’t steal,” Guerrero said. “Most kids don’t have Campus Cash unless their parents put it on there. Paying out of pocket when you have a meal plan is the reason I think why people steal from Tu Merc.”
With food prices being a main concern, Dining Services recently compared their bulk prices to Costco in order to match the costs to make it cheaper for students. According to Dining Services, USD is the cheapest when it comes to produce and food products on campus compared to other universities.
Tu Mercado is the main dining service that gets the reputation for expensive food products. Carol Normal, Director of Dining Services at USD, recognized the issue of high prices.
“Part of the reason why we brought in the new bulk grocery concept at Tu Mercado [was] so students have an array of grocery items now that you can purchase that are basically almost comparable to Costco price,” Norman said. “We did that on purpose because we wanted to make sure that there were affordable options for students. The other thing, though, was that when we first developed Tu Mercado the idea was to have it be more of a Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s type of concept to be able to have the organic and the gluten-free options, and those types of items aren’t cheap either.”
Dining Services staff continues to explore options like using hand-held mobile devices to make lines faster at La Paloma and Tu Mercado, as well as offer affordable food options to prevent theft on campus. While some students may steal for the thrill of it or because they have no time, stealing continues to be a challenge for Dining Services, and an obstacle it hopes to overcome soon.