Every morning, at the institution where I work, I attend a lecture series with on the order of 100 other students. The lecture hall is very central on campus, and large meetings are often held nearby -- almost right outside -- at the same time. Very frequently, tables equipt with refreshments accompany these meetings. Again very frequently, I will pour myself a cup of coffee as I go by.

I'm reasonably certain that this is unethical (*), but what surprises me is how socially deviant it appears. Of the approximately 100 students with whom I attend lectures, I do not see any of them making use of these resources on a regular basis. I've once or twice been harshly reprimanded by a conference-goer getting coffee at the same time as myself, and I've seen people sit down to work only about 20 meters away with coffee that they've licitly purchased, even if the meeting was clearly over and the refreshments were just waiting to be cleaned up. I once walked by a table just as it was being cleared and asked the staff member clearing it if it was okay for me to take something, and he was totally cool with it. I've never seen signs posted near the tables indicating that the refreshments are intended strictly for the attendees of the meeting, though I would guess that this is assumed to be understood. My only other source for views on this matter is PHD Comics, which has published an assortment of strips centered on the topic of free food.

I know that social norms probably vary geographically, maybe even by discipline, but I was wondering what others' experiences have been as regards stealing free food. As is -- I believe -- apparent, I consider it a relatively minor trespass, but other than the conference-goers who've yelled at me I've never heard the issue brought up explicitly. So, how do you think people judge the stealing of free food, and how have you formed these perceptions?

(*) I'm only "reasonably certain" because, as I understand it, the excesses from these meeting are frequently thrown out. As someone legitimately attending a conference, I've been instructed explicitly by the organizers to take excess food with me to avoid wasting it in this manner. I dislike waste in general, and I particularly abhor the waste of perfectly good food, especially coffee.

Note: I'm not 100% sure that this belongs on Academia Stack Exchange, but this is not a question about the ethics of stealing coffee; I am interested specifically in the attitudes of academics towards stealing free food. For instance, why do so few others seem to do so? People do little unethical things all the time -- arguably, speeding falls in this category -- but I seem almost alone in breaking this particular rule.

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    Concerning the paragraph marked with an asterisk: As a little thought experiment, replace each occurrence of conference with eat-all-you-can buffet in a restaurant and check whether you are still just "reasonably certain" about the ethics of taking something for free while paying attendees are serving themselves. I think the two basic "misconceptions" in this question are that (1) the food is not free (conference attendees paid for it), and (2) the excess amount is probably not fixed, but proportional to what was ... Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 12:36
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    ... used (i.e. by taking some of it, you are contributing to an increase of the waste during the next meeting). With that said, I feel this question, in its current form, aims a bit too much for a discussion than allowing for a clear answer. Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 12:37
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    "I've once or twice been harshly reprimanded by a conference-goer getting coffee at the same time as myself" --- The least you could do is wait until the meeting is over before taking anything.
    – Daniel
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 15:49
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    I feel that the general location may be relevant. For instance, if in the US I would question the premise of "perfectly good [...] coffee."
    – Clement C.
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 15:50
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    Meta post re on-topic-ness of this question: meta.academia.stackexchange.com/questions/3404/…
    – A E
    Commented Jul 30, 2016 at 17:25

8 Answers 8


The big difference here is simply whether the meeting is over or not, i.e. whether it would have to be thrown away or not. If those who are supposed to consume it (for which, as others have pointed out, someone paid) clearly have no intent of doing so (because they left), then I think it is fine to consume it.

In fact, in that case, you would even do them a favor because noone has to clean it up. But otherwise, it's stealing. Another indication for this is the group size: With about 100 students, there clearly wouldn't be enough if everyone took some coffee.

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    I remember back in grad school, whenever the department had some event with food (e.g. for donors etc., not students), the department secretary would let all the students know when it was over. Basically turned into a feeding frenzy, but we didn't take anything before given the go ahead. Very effective method of cleaning up excess food and getting rid of waste.
    – PGnome
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 14:28
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    Even if the meeting is over, I would consider just taking stuff as stealing, since you don't really know that they are going to throw out the food. At one of these things, they let the janitorial team take the food home. I can't really justify taking food from the lowest paid employees of the place... Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 14:35
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    @pwcnorthrop that's exactly how we do it as well in our department (actually, often, the organizers simply post it in the department's Facebook-groep: Free food there-and-there). But if such a policy is not in place and if it is beyond reasonable doubt clear that it is not needed any more, than I'd just take it, I guess.
    – damian
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 14:51
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    @FábioDias in the context of this question, I do strongly doubt they're going to take the coffee home (or give it to orphans as another had suggested). Coffee is cheap, the quickest and most cost-effective means of disposal is down the drain. Others helping themselves to a cup or two after the event just means a lighter dispenser/percolator for the staff to have to haul off and dump out.
    – Doktor J
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 17:19
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    @DoktorJ I agree, but that doesn't change the fact that, until you ask someone in charge, it is all speculation, IMHO. I'm actually trying to avoid conclusions that are too specific because this question is already a slippery slope, even if a mostly harmless one. Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 20:31

A useful way to think about free food/coffee is to try to determine its purpose. Why did someone spend time and money to provide it? Are you subverting that purpose by taking it? The refreshment might be there

  • to attract people to an event
  • to encourage socialization or attentiveness at an event
  • to create a more welcoming general work environment somewhere
  • etc.

If you are taking something which is destined to be thrown away, that is more ethical than taking refreshments from a seminar that you didn't attend.


This issue is particularly confusing because you are mixing several different scenarios.

"hard" facts:

  • There is no free lunch,
  • You do not have legitimate access to the food,
  • You have no idea what they will do with the "leftovers".

One thing is for you to just get there and serve yourself. That is, literally, stealing, as you said yourself. The fact that is food can ease the rationalization, but doesn't change that. Fact 3, you don't know if they will take the leftovers to an orphanage, for instance. Or to the trash, I don't know either.

Another case is when you ask someone, with the appropriate level of "power", if you can serve yourself. With proper authorization, you change the second fact and it is not stealing.

Personally, best course of action that I can see, talk to the organizers, see if they have anything against you taking a cup everyday, even offer to help pay for it. The organizer will laugh, tell you to go right ahead. Then you can calmly tell the next guy that yells at you that you have proper authorization for the coffee, all clean and ethical :)

The only "academia-related" change would be that students might get a free pass. Since you work at the university, yeah, sorry, no free meal for you

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    I agree - except for "students might get a free pass", it might just as well be employees who might get a free pass. Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 14:42
  • @O.R.Mapper I might have missed a word there. Poor students might get a pass, following the idea of underpaid grad students, from phd comics, referenced by the OP (phdcomics.com/comics/archive_print.php?comicid=1223) Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 16:53
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    "you don't know if they will take the leftovers to an orphanage" My understanding is that the health department in most states in the USA prohibit this. It must be discarded. Instead, I would say "You don't know if they will reconvene later, and maybe even in a different spot."
    – user23776
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 20:58
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    @fredsbend usda.gov/oce/foodwaste/resources/donations.htm Commented Jul 30, 2016 at 3:59
  • @FábioDias That's interesting, but I'd still bet certain laws mandate disposal. Meat, for example, cannot have been left out for too long, like only four hours. And every time I'm solicited for a food drive it's always non perishable only.
    – user23776
    Commented Jul 30, 2016 at 5:29

Three considerations in rationalizing activities (on campus):

(1) Do not inconvenience the 'registered conference/meeting goers' or the equivalent. One's actions/choices should not delay or hinder them access, or make it unappetizing or difficult for them to partake.

(2) If one is not honest about small things (stealing some coffee) then when the stakes are higher one becomes more ethical?(really?). That sounds a lot like just being more cautious when the stakes are higher because the consequences if caught are more severe.

(3) On-campus, When it is clear there is plenty of extra coffee/tea/cookies/food - usually most faculty are OK with students getting some benefit as long as it doesn't conflict with (1). (And this is one rationalization why we tend to be flexible with (2) (But do not use (3) as rationalization to avoid paying for department coffee/tea/cookies when there is an honor system collecting money).

(3prime) If the setting is on-campus but not so clearly academic (say a for-profit conference center or eatery run by the university, most administrators are NOT OK with students getting some benefit of sampling a bit.

(4) If someone partakes of food and it is set out to encourage attendance at a colloq/seminar/meeting, then he must attend the meeting.

Examples of applying (1), (2), and (3).

If everyone going through the area samples the other meeting's coffee/tea/food/cookies, it becomes a problem, but if a few people do it is isn't. Avoid being a chronic sampler, and build up karmic points by occasionally buying it yourself.

When the other meeting is done, the food/coffee/etc is usually considered free game in the academic setting, but do be careful. When no one is around may also mean that the attendees are still in session and will be desperate for coffee/cookie when they get break.

Avoid taking food /coffee/tea before or during the intended times the conferees have access. Maneuvering around an interloper is almost annoying as finding that the preferred coffee/tea type/cookie/food is used up before one has gotten to it.

edit one: Add more cautions to 'end of meeting' exceptions. Added (3prime) to cover on-campus venues that are not the usual faculty/committee meetings. Added (4) (attend the seminar)

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    I think point 2 can be expanded or even linked to a point 4 in this way: If others see someone not attending the conference taking refreshments, they may either think that the refreshments are for everyone, or at least they may think that it's easy to get away with taking some even though it's not meant for them. The fact that this doesn't seem to have happened (yet?) in the asker's situation doesn't change the fact that it's a selfish thing to do and a selfish message to send and a selfish example to set for those around you. Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 14:27
  • @Todd_Wilcox, that is an important expansion clarification that I think goes under (1) (since encouraging directly or indirectly a horde to descend inconveniences the participants being able to get their choices, etc). In the OP's example, because of cenralized location there was a potential for a horde but I was also trying to convey a general academic 'food' situation, which more often would be the small coffee/food tables for faculty/univ-committee/colloquium/smallworkshop etc./meetings (relatively less often conference with registered attendees ) and typically not so centrally located.
    – Carol
    Commented Jul 30, 2016 at 13:32
  • @Todd_Wilcox, I have to admit in the exact details of the OP's example (centralized location with lots of people from different meetings and also unrelated to any meetings pass through, I personally would be using your thought (if one person takes cookie/coffee it likely would just encourage a nuisance of others to ravage the table, which definitely would be considered an issue even in an academic setting where we would be otherwise sympathetic to giving students a bit of a break when it comes to food/coffee set out for a faculty meeting.
    – Carol
    Commented Jul 30, 2016 at 13:41

In general, don't do it. Someone is paying for it, and if they don't have you in mind when they write the check, then it's not yours to freely take. They are right to confront you when you do take it.

You don't want to get into the ethics of stealing coffee, but you've asked an ethical question to academics, so you're going to get it anyway. You taking this limited resource not meant for you does not pass the universality test. If every student attending your lecture swiped a cup as they strolled by, the can would surely empty quickly, likely depriving those who have a legitimate right to it. This seems an obvious point and neglecting it adds further insult to the illicit taking of a cup in the first place.

I do conferencing a lot. Taking another group's food is a major infraction. I've seen security called over it. I've seen security stationed with ropes and everything, just to preemptively protect a spread that may be exposed to outsiders. Putting it bluntly, the stuff's expensive. Feeding the neighborhood is just not in the budget.

Now, you talk about salvaging waste. I understand your feelings; I also abhor waste. But, assuming they are done with it is dangerous ground. There may be another session starting in an hour. You don't know, unless you ask. Now, if it's 7PM and no one is around, and no one's left any personal effects in the room, then it's probably going to be tossed once the staff gets to it. I say go for it, but outside of that scenario you must resist the urge. Remind yourself that it is not your coffee.


Just make sure the conference is over already before taking the coffee intended for the conference.

If the conference is still going on, conference-goers might want coffee, and if you wind up emptying out the coffee container, you'd be responsible for the conference-goer not getting coffee.

But if the conference is over, then anything left from the conference is excess, and will be thrown out anyway - so you are in no way obligated to leave it for anyone.

By waiting until the conference is over, you're avoiding any risk that you might take something from it that someone else wanted - and only someone who is truly uptight would have any problem with you using the leftovers that would otherwise get thrown out.

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    "only someone who is truly uptight would have any problem with you using the leftovers that would otherwise get thrown out" You'd be surprised how many are just uptight enough. The general staff almost never cares. Managers do sometimes. It's the group's bean counters that get weird.
    – user23776
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 20:53
  • @fredsbend I have no illusion that there doesn't exist in this world people who are that uptight - fortunately, they don't usually hang around after meetings for that long. Too much downtime. ;) (More realistically, if someone does get upset at you, it's unlikely you'll get in much trouble, unless they recognize you as someone who's supposed to be held in high respect, in which case, you probably don't need to be taking leftovers from a conference you didn't attend, but all of these are edge-cases).
    – Zibbobz
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 13:19

Theft is theft. If the coffee was paid for by the Institution you work for, you are stealing from your employer.

  • You can get fired for that (at least in Germany)
  • It is highly unethical (i also don't take other things from my employer because they are "free" - like paper which is needed to print something on it, the coffee on the table of a conference prevents hundred people running to a long queue and stalling the meeting by not finding change/the way to the machine)
  • I would hope you understand that PHD comics address a lot of things which the authors probably see very critical.

Highly anecdotal answer ahead.

For about a month or so, I would do the same in my department's building outside of the main auditorium. There were even snacks that I would take. Now I assumed that these were available to all in the building(they were not).

A month later, after taking my share of food, one of the department chairs immediately called me out and told me to put the food back. He was definitely not pleased or forgiving. Afterwards, they had actually hired someone to stop people from taking from the table.

With that said, if I had set out a table like that for my own meeting, I wouldn't reasonably believe that just the people attending my meeting would take some of the refreshments. Now I'm not condoning my actions, or even condemning them, but I believe that's the most realistic.

All I would say is, like some of the other answers, wait until the conference is over and take what you'd like.

And as a side note, I would definitely consider myself as a social deviant in the department I study under.

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    "they had actually hired someone to stop people from taking from the table." Not unusual at all. I've seen security called over this kind of thing.
    – user23776
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 20:51

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