If you’re lucky enough to gain admittance into New York City’s Columbia University, be prepared for some sticker shock. The university is pricey; even Columbia’s website recognizes this, with a web page titled “How can I afford to send my child to Columbia?” The university estimates that, all-in, a student (and his or her family) will incur costs of just under $70,000. Most of that — $53,000 — is for tuition and fees, but about $5,000 is for a meal plan which for first-year students, at least, is mandatory.
That $5,000 plan isn’t going to get you a five-star meal every day, but it’s also significantly more money than a dollar menu budget. Assuming that meal plans cover 35 weeks a year, 20 meals a week (when I was in college, at least, Sunday was brunch and dinner only), the per-meal cost comes out to a non-terribly-unreasonable $7.15 (give or take) per meal. With economies of scale — it’s pretty certain that Columbia’s food services buys in bulk — the University can even handle a luxury or two, such as the item below.
That, for those who haven’t experienced its wonderfulness, is the chocolatey hazelnut spread known as Nutella. It’s expensive, at least relative to other spreads ($0.43 an ounce on Amazon compared to $0.29/ounce for a lesser quantity of peanut butter), and it’s pretty popular, so it’s not a typical feature on college menus which are trying to watch every dime. Columbia, though, decided to offer the item, and as is predictable, the students responded by eating it — a lot of it. More than they ever could have in one sitting, even, which is where the problems began.
Students started stealing Nutella. A lot of Nutella.
In March of 2013, shortly after the spread was offered, Vicki Dunn, the executive director of the school’s Dining Services department told the campus press that student consumption of Nutella was much, much larger than expected, and not limited to crepes eaten in the dining hall. Per Dunn, “students have been filling cups of Nutella to-go in Ferris Booth Commons and taking the full jars out of John Jay [both are dining halls].” The former is, plausibly, allowable, but taking an entire jar — a dozen or more servings — is excessive, to say the least. Per some estimates, the Nutella use totaled $5,000 a week — or about $175,000 for a 35-week school year. For comparison’s sake, according to NPR, students at Columbia are known to steal silverware and (empty) cups from the dining halls, too, but only (only?) to the tune of $50,000 annually.
The school, per a follow-up New York Times report, claimed that the $5,000 was an overestimate and the damages from Nutella theft weren’t quite that bad. A (very informal) survey of Columbia students — 11 of them — found zero who had stolen Nutella, although “all confessed to having spirited away loaves of bread and bottles of ketchup, not to mention containers of milk and pieces of fruit.” Meal plans at Columbia — and likely most other schools — seem to have an informal take out option built in, and it isn’t limited to expensive hazelnut spreads. On the other hand, of the 11 people surveyed, a few knew people, first-hand, who had taken more Nutella than they should have, suggesting that Columbia’s Nutella problem was very real. And even if the estimates were only have of what was reported, that’s still nearly six figures of contraband crepe filling littering Columbia’s dorms and apartments. The costs from the stolen Nutella were almost certainly large.
Regardless, Columbia decided not to eliminate Nutella from the menu, at least not immediately. On the other hand, as New York magazine reported, Dining Services was “hesitant to offer other ‘luxury’ items, like lobster tails, due to similarly high anticipated demand.”
From the Archives: Hanging with Mr. Cooper: You might not find Nutella in Harvard’s dining halls, but you may find a dog there.
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