PERROTTA: Taste of Nashville: Campus Dining’s saving grace during COVID-19

Taste of Nashville has salvaged Campus Dining during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

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Hallie Williams

Taco Mama as photographed on Feb. 13, 2021. (Vanderbilt Multimedia/Hallie Williams)

Rachael Perrotta, Staff Writer

I play a game with myself and the GET app each week: can I beat my record low amount of meal swipes left at the end of the week? So far, my lowest amount is 9—quite impressive, if I do say so myself.

Adding to how the heavy meal portions served at the dining halls usually prevent me from eating three meals a day, mystery meat from Rand or moldy fruit from Commons is not exactly what I crave when I’m hungry. Therefore, the Taste of Nashville has been my saving grace since arriving in Nashville last fall. 

Entering college for the first time during the COVID-19 era, I’m practically unfamiliar with the delicious menu items of the past: the infamous (in-person) pasta bar, caprese from Grins and real Rand Cookies. The only experience I have with some of the beloved features of Campus Dining are ordering a Randwich a week in advance because of unavailability, only to forget I ordered it and neglecting to pick it up. 

I’m grateful to the Taste of Nashville for being my only breather from the soggy-yet-dry rice and over-sweetened lemonade from the dining halls. It has been arguably the sole redeemer of Campus Dining during my semester and a half at Vanderbilt.

It also has allowed me and my peers a rare opportunity to retreat from our residence halls and interact with each other and our new surroundings.

As a first-year who had never been to Tennessee before this summer, I’ve relished the opportunity to explore my community, despite COVID-19 restrictions. Moving more than 1,000 miles away from home definitely took an emotional and mental toll; Nashville shared nothing—not weather, food or way of life—with my New England hometown, and I longed for something to bring me closer with my new environment. Despite Campus Dining’s efforts to introduce various cultures in their now-limited menu, I have yet to eat a meal from the “Global Flavors” section of a dining hall that hasn’t been botched in some way—the “Italian Beef Sandwich,” for example, is simply a plain Philly cheesesteak. 

To add to the mayhem of living in a new place with practically no desirable food options, many venues typically frequented by Vanderbilt students are either closed or COVID-19 breeding grounds. Hence, I’ve leaned heavily on the Taste of Nashville to give me a starting point for exploration, social connection and a break from Campus Dining’s barely-edible to-go meals.  

Coming from a primarily Italian city in Rhode Island, the wide array of Tex-Mex, barbeque and hot chicken (especially with waffles) shocked me. The extent of Tex-Mex food at home is Taco Bell and Chipotle, which don’t exactly hold the same draw as SATCO or Taco Mama. Never before had I eaten biscuits, hot chicken, fruit tea, chili burgers or grits. I was introduced to southern favorites like Jeni’s and Biscuit Love and have learned to love the special cuisine Nashville boasts. Recently, after moving from Commons to Towers this semester, I’ve discovered some new spots (Frutta Bowls is my new stomping ground) that have become the main drainers of my Meal Money. Thanks to the Taste of Nashville, I was able to experience the true cultural aspects of life as a Vanderbilt, especially first-year, student.

The Taste of Nashville also has ensured that I haven’t spent all of my precious spending money on food, as is characteristic of me. Furthermore, it has allowed me and my peers to bridge the gap between those who may not normally have the ability to spend money at restaurants. This dilemma can create unnecessary stress for all involved, particularly when meeting someone for the first time and in the midst of a national economic crisis.

Despite the clear advantages of the Taste of Nashville, it does fall short in some aspects. For one, it only includes restaurants in the immediate vicinity of Vanderbilt’s campus. If you’re like me and get claustrophobic sitting on Zoom in your Commons dorm overlooking Hillsboro Village all day, you might be craving a change of scenery. Other areas in Nashville, like the Gulch and 12th Avenue South, are definitely worth exploring, especially for their food scenes. 

Additionally, I’ve found that not all nearby restaurants are included in the Taste of Nashville, including ones that Vanderbilt students hold near and dear, like Pancake Pantry. However, this beloved spot does offer 50 percent off for students between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Thursday through Sunday and might be in the works of joining the Taste of Nashville. Students (especially upperclassmen who’ve had the chance to discover more eateries than us first-years) should keep their eyes peeled for a VSG survey at the end of the semester about suggestions for new additions to the Taste of Nashville.  

I long await the day when my meal swipes reduce to 19 and my Meal Money increases to $275 next year. The need for more flexibility in the meal swipes to Meal Money ratio has been emphasized with COVID-19, as students struggle to find appealing and allergen-friendly dining options with the Campus Dining’s limited menu. Vanderbilt recently partnered with GrubHub to try to alleviate some of these issues. However, students must use Commodore Cash for these transactions, which is usually out-of-pocket instead of being embedded in the meal plan as is Meal Money. Regardless of the added complications that COVID-19 poses for Campus Dining, students should have more freedom surrounding their meal plan breakdown to align with their personal habits and decrease the amount of food and money wasted via unused meal swipes/Meal Money (guilty as charged).

Besides these minor gripes, the Taste of Nashville compensates for the other current unappetizing aspects of Campus Dining. I think I speak for all first-years when I say I look forward to the day when our top-ranked Campus Dining returns to normal and when I finally can pile my own plate at the Rand buffet, not have to worry about my food flipping upside down in my to-go container and eat in the dining halls without facing social embarrassment. Until then, catch me at Taco Mama!