Fresh food vending machines: filling some gaps, not others

Bread vending machine in France

France is in trouble. At least that what’s the NY Times said on Sunday. It seems that local bakeries in some small villages are closing, causing grief and consternation among the residents. In the article, one resident was thrown into a state of existential despair, as the French do so very well:

“Without bread, there is no more life,” said Gérard Vigot, standing in his driveway across the street from the now shuttered bakery. “This is a dead village.”

Jean Paul Sartre, French existentialist philosopher, who apparently also just read this article.

Fear not, mes amis. There is a way out of this, despite your feelings of nausea, and anxiety that there is no exit. Yes, life without a local bakery feels like being and nothingness. But thanks to technology and… well… capitalism (I know, I know), a metamorphosis is coming. In the form of:

The baguette vending machine.

A baguette vending machine in rural France.

I know, you are thinking:

Let’s all just take a breath and sit down, so you can hear me out.

The idea of selling a variety of foods in vending machines isn’t new. In Japan, you can buy loads of products (both edible and non) from vending machines. Among the edible products you can buy, there are toasted sandwiches, ramen bowls, and hamburgers (of a sort).

Japanese vending machines selling hot foods.

But you might be thinking: these foods, while ultra-convenient, may not be very fresh or tasty. Fair point. Enter the salad vending machine.

Currently, in North America, these products are only available in a few big cities in the US and Canada. However, there are companies (like Canteen Canada and Farmer’s Fridge in the US) that are looking to provide businesses with fresh food vending machines for their employees. I know that food never looks like the pictures, but this one is too delish-looking not to share.

A variety of fresh food items from a vending machine. Sandwiches, granola and yogurt, salads, cheese. veggies.

For bread-only vending: just doing a brief internet search, I found machines in Germany and also in Japan and Singapore. There are some in San Francisco and Vancouver, too. Reports suggest that the quality of bread can be good, and companies are working on improving technology and delivery.

Okay– now we know there’s technology for delivering lots of fresh food from vending machines. The industry is in early stages with limited distribution, but it’s expanding, including in rural France. So, problem solved, right? No.

I think the people in that small French village in the NY Times story are grieving the loss of a particular way of life, of the social and communal opportunities that the bakery provides. They’ve lost a place for casual conversations with their neighbors, but also a part of their identity– as people who value hand-made food and live in ways that prioritize its role in their lives. It’s not just about the bread. Villagers won’t be gathering around the vending machine, talking about the weather or politics. They may get used to it, but it’s leaving them wanting.

What about salad and sandwich vending machines? Are they just a novelty, or is there a niche that they can fill in communities and cities? I think there is a place for them (provided the quality is about as good as it looks). In the US, lunch tends to be an on-the-go affair. I try to prepare nice food to bring to work with me, but don’t always manage. Having the option of something fresh and quick sounds great to me. I don’t need lots (or even any) personal interaction and chit-chat around getting my lunch.

Thoughtful placement of fresh food vending machines seems to me like a way to make some eating occasions easier. But, they need to be inserted to facilitate, not disrupt, our food rituals. Honestly, if there were a baguette vending machine at my university, I bet it would sell out every day. But it’s not replacing a local boulangerie. It’s adding to my university food environment.

As in everything, context matters. Readers, do you think fresh food vending machines would make your life easier? Where would you want to see them? Do you see any problems they would create? I’d love to hear from you.

Bread, by Filip Mishevski for unsplash.
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