Just days into the mandatory 14-day quarantine, NYU students were served the now-infamous watermelon chicken salad. The strange combination was one of several poorly executed meals delivered to students quarantining in residential housing — if they received meals at all — that quickly gained popularity on TikTok.
The video-sharing platform swiftly became the medium for an expose of NYU’s missteps as TikTok flooded with videos of meals served to students; the more inedible the food served, the more popular it became.
“The worst meal I got was an extremely moldy orange, some Oreos, an apple and pita chips,” Steinhardt first-year Annabelle Skala said. “I posted it on TikTok and a lot of people could hardly believe it was real because it was so ridiculous. The TikTok blew up so quickly — by the end of the first day, [the video] I had posted had over 100,000 views.”
A recurring trend among viral TikToks was NYU’s failure to comply with students’ specified dietary restrictions.
“When I opened the bag I actually had to laugh when I pulled out a steak and cheese salad,” Gallatin first-year Ben Cresto said. “Being fed something so obviously non-vegan, there was nothing else to do besides laugh at the situation I had found myself in. The first thing I did was make a TikTok to share with my friends on my Snapchat private story. I did not think the video would make it past my small circle of about 20 followers, nor did I intend it to.”
Soon, an outpouring of response on NYU quarantine meal-related TikToks came to students in the form of comments and direct messages, many of which were empathetic.
“I felt very listened to and as if everyone was sympathetic, and I was getting a lot of attention from friends and family and on my TikTok account,” Stern first-year Cristina Díaz said.
However, students did receive backlash — primarily concerning NYU’s cost of attendance, which many took as a signifier of students’ individual wealth.
“A lot of people didn’t know the full story of NYU or myself, so they started calling me spoiled for paying so much to attend here and then complain about the food,” Díaz said.
Reactions were often critical, especially when the TikTok videos circulated beyond the platform and particularly among audiences of older demographics.
“The videos that have been posted to Facebook have been getting more negative comments,” Skala said. “A lot of comments on Facebook stated that we were ungrateful and entitled. I simply responded by saying that we are grateful but expect more from a multimillion dollar institution and should not be experiencing food insecurity in an already uncertain time. Many people responded more kindly to that.”
Though physically distanced, sharing inadequate quarantine meals on TikTok also gave students the opportunity to connect with one another.
“A girl commented on one of my TikToks asking me if I lived in Palladium and I responded and followed her,” Steinhardt first-year Thor Keefer said. “She followed me back and we messaged and found out that she’s one floor below me. Now we talk all the time and plan to do so more once we get out.”
The viral TikToks brought many students in contact with major media outlets, including NBC, CBS, The New York Times and Good Morning America, who interviewed students about their experiences.
“Being interviewed for NBC was so cool,” Skala said. “It was refreshing because the article encompassed more of the overall experience moving into NYU during COVID and the quarantine, rather than just the food. I’m glad people are interested and want to help.”
Though the public attention was helpful in enacting tangible changes to the meals, not all students felt well-represented by the overwhelmingly critical portrayal.
“A lot of the news media outlets didn’t seem to pick up on the humor imbued into the video — it wasn’t meant to be interpreted as a cry for help, but many saw it as such,” Cresso said. “The pressure placed upon the university to up their game after the wave of videos were posted to TikTok was needed — the original meal situation truly was inadequate at best — but at the same time, I do feel bad criticizing NYU’s meal efforts because they were provided completely gratis. It was a really weird situation.”
An unexpected resource that arose from students’ videos was chain restaurants offering to send free food or discounts for students who did not receive meals.
“ByChloe commented on my TikTok asking for my email and sent me a gift card to their website which was super nice,” Tisch senior Sarah Steffens said.
Keefer recalled his excitement when Chipotle reached out to him through TikTok direct messages.
“I got a notification while scrolling through TikTok, and then I saw that [Chipotle] had commented on one of my TikToks,” Keefer said. “They gave me a free dinner to be delivered. It was really cool of them to do that, and honestly, such good marketing.”
Smaller companies took the opportunity to access the student market and garner a social media presence as students shared the food sent from brands on TikTok.
“A newer brand called Off Limits reached out to me, and I was able to secure some free cereal for a bunch of students in Rubin [Residence Hall],” Skala said. “I think the exposure they got from it is beneficial for them, and of course, we got some free food.”
Suddenly faced with fervent public retaliation on TikTok, NYU began to roll out conciliatory snack boxes, gift cards for food delivery platforms and assured students that they would improve the consistency of their meals. These offerings, however, were not always equally distributed.
“I’m sad that they haven’t put more thought into the exciting ‘treats’ they’re giving out — students with dietary restrictions are just skipped over instead of given a different version,” Skala said. “For example, I’ve seen students getting Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks coffee drinks but other students have been completely skipped over because they are vegetarian and vegan. While I’m glad that many aspects of the meals are improving, the lack of attention to detail and accommodations is disappointing.”
Still, students have expressed their appreciation for the efforts NYU has been taking in light of the unique situation.
“Since we first arrived, the meals have significantly improved, and I think it’s important to recognize this effort on behalf of the school,” Gallatin first-year Charles Besso said. “The quality and quantity of food is much better than on day one, and the school has generously offered students hundreds of dollars in Grubhub coupons. Yes, the situation could have been handled better from the beginning. However, this is the first time any school has had to deal with such a situation; we’re all learning how to deal with the limitations of the pandemic, even NYU.”
As the mandatory quarantine comes to an end, some students may have the quarantine meals to thank for unexpected popularity and a newfound hobby in creating TikToks.
Díaz, who has amassed over 31,600 followers on TikTok, looks forward to using her platform to continue creating content.
“Before I went viral on TikTok, I had a few TikTok ‘famous’ friends,” Díaz said. “So as [my account] started to grow they reached out to me and advised me to join the TikTok Creator Fund, and I’ve started to now make money from my video views. For the rest of quarantine I’m going to continue making food unboxings because that’s currently what’s helping me grow and make money, but once it’s over I’ll probably make NYC montages and vlogs.”
Though the NYU quarantine meals helped some students develop an audience on TikTok, ultimately, those who plan to keep up their accounts are looking to steer their videos toward topics of their own interest.
“Before I made a NYU meals TikToks, I already had a decent number of followers, so I plan on continuing to post content but not about the meals,” Besso said. “I don’t want to brand myself as someone who just criticizes situations, because I feel grateful for everything I do have. If I get attention online I would want it to be for who I am or my personality; I wouldn’t want to just be known as the ‘watermelon chicken salad’ TikToker.”
Because of reactions on social media and among the NYU student body, students haven’t let the inadequacy of quarantine meals ruin their semester.
“The support I’ve felt since everything transpired has also been quite profound,” Cresso said. “I’m still getting messages, almost two weeks after I posted the video, of people wanting to send me food, groceries, gift cards. The most touching experiences have been from the students themselves who have offered to bake and deliver special vegan treats. If this experience taught me anything about how this semester will go, it gave me hope.”
Email Divya Nelakonda at [email protected]