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A few weeks back, I visited a friend of mine who attends Vanderbilt. We stopped by the Chili’s just across from campus to grab a bite. After the meal, my friend calmly pulled her Commodore Card from her purse and handed it to our waitress to pay for our meals.

I was dumbfounded. Granted, I had downed a few Bud Lights during dinner, but I was still in pretty good shape. Logically, I could only infer, “Bursar at Chili’s? Brilliant!”

Apparently, Vanderbilt Dining has a supplementary program to its student-dining plan, known as the “Taste of Nashville,” which allows students to use a portion of their meal-plan dollars at 24 nearby off-campus restaurants (And yes, when my friend paid for dinner with her Vandy meal plan, the Bud Light was covered.) This gave birth to my dream for Penn: the “Taste of University City.”

As a four-year meal-plan holder, I’ve never been completely satisfied with the breadth of my Dining Dollars’ utility, and I’m sure that some of you reading this can empathize with me. Expanding the variety of dining locations where students can use Dining Dollars, or meal money in a similar yearly allowance program, would provide a greater number of meal choices for students, inherently increasing the attractiveness of meal-plan options to upperclassmen.

Vandy’s “Taste of Nashville” isn’t a rare breed. Schools across of the country have similar programs. Carnegie Mellon, located in Pittsburgh, offers upperclassmen the DineXtra Declining Balance Program. Students can choose a designated plan amount valid for purchasing food at three non-university restaurants near campus — that’s in addition to the 20 dining locations owned and operated by the school.

There are a variety of restaurants between 33rd and 40th streets that Penn could endeavor to form similar business deals with, thereby giving meal-plan holders a greater dining selection. These restaurants already depend heavily on student business, and while there may be some difficult treading in hammering out mutually beneficial deals for both the University and various establishments, I have no doubt that Penn’s savvy business administrators could get it done.

In a recent conversation, Laurie Cousart, director of Business Services (which oversees Penn Dining), spoke of the importance of a plethora of meal options for students within two different realms — on-campus dining and off-campus dining ­— that reflect the University’s overriding commitment to affording its students ample choices. But Penn Dining, Cousart noted, is focused solely on creating more choices for students within the on-campus sphere. She cited the new management and operations agreement with Bon Appétit and its continued work to create a variety of viable retail dining locations on campus. Off campus, though, isn’t under Penn Dining’s purview.

Cousart has a point. Penn Dining’s philosophy is reflective of the larger vision of the University. Penn doesn’t require its students to purchase a meal plan or live in a College House past their freshman year, and it gives students a great deal of academic flexibility in terms of meeting basic requisites essential to a well-rounded education. And, since Bon Appétit has arrived, there have been significant changes to residential and retail dining options as a result of student feedback. Finally, Penn has undoubtedly helped attract numerous restaurants to the University City area over the years to give students more dining options beyond the meal plan.

Still, I have yet to encounter any prevailing reason as to why the two spheres of dining have to be mutually exclusive. Sometimes I like choosing from a variety of dishes and eating to my heart’s content in our dining halls. And sometimes I have a craving for a burrito that the fine folks working in Houston Market just can’t create. I just wish I didn’t have to spend my own money while my Dining Dollars go untouched.

Jonathan Wright is a College senior from Memphis, Tenn. His e-mail address is

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