Keep the Change
COMMENTARY

March 10, 2023by Terry Babcock-Lumish, Executive Secretary of the Truman Foundation and Fiona Walsh, Co-Founder of the Mesurado Cooperative
Keep the Change

The word “vend” means “to sell” but also “to utter publicly.” Vending machines offer remarkable insights into the near-term priorities and preferences of not just consumers but a citizenry. Our first encounters with vending machines were beasts dispensing cigarettes in bowling alleys in the early 1980s. As longtime collaborators across the country and globe, we regularly compare noteworthy point-of-sale experiences in a very different world from our childhoods.

Our favorites — at least to date — bestow Cadbury chocolate and paperback books to peckish, bored globetrotters transiting through London’s Heathrow airport. Despite capturing photos from around the world — fresh apples in Auckland, leis in Honolulu, phone chargers in New York, live crabs in Hangzhou, most anything one might imagine in Tokyo — we have yet to consider vending machines in an organized fashion. We are overdue.

Even before a global pandemic, economists were reading the tea leaves for the future of commerce as marketplaces moved online, facilitated by swift digital transactions rather than in-person exchanges of physical dollars and cents. Fast forward to today, when Ravi Dhar, director of Yale’s Center for Customer Insights, discovers that 75% of consumers — three in four — tried a new store, brand or different way of shopping during the pandemic.

While we may be back in the world, no longer actively avoiding all human interaction, the pandemic still touches every corner of the globe, and our preferences have shifted.

With the future of workplaces called into question, train station vending machines dispensing salads and sodas for on-the-go daily commuters are missing their usual, well-heeled clientele. But we adapt. Early in the pandemic, Boston’s Logan and Las Vegas’ McCarran airports installed vending machines with personal protective equipment, and start-ups sold at-home COVID tests in vending machines. According to a July 2020 report by Research and Markets, the global vending machine market was valued at over $134 billion in 2019 and is projected to top $146 billion by 2024.

While vending machines of the past have understandably suffered from unhealthy reputations, young entrepreneurs are busy reinventing them. A third of the world’s vending machines are in the United States. In addition to the usual chips and candy bars, the industry now includes entrepreneurial independent operators drawn to relatively low start-up costs to safely sell everything from artisanal pasta to organic, grass-fed meat, Plan B and engagement rings. Public policy could use this entrepreneurial energy to address some of society’s most pressing ills.

With exogenous shocks to our system — the pandemic, supply chain woes and rising food costs — the world continues to navigate economic insecurity and instability. Three years of COVID-19 have exposed and exacerbated deep disparities along racial and socioeconomic lines, hitting women, low-income communities, and Black and Latino Americans hardest. During the pandemic, food insecurity doubled in the United States, tripling among households with children.

Hardworking Americans who have never found themselves reliant on benefits now face the end of federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program emergency allotments and the risk of food insecurity. The extra COVID SNAP benefits — one of the nation’s vital social safety networks — ended in February, further reducing how much food an estimated 31 million Americans (out of 41 million enrolled nationwide) will be able to afford each month.

Cuts to SNAP benefits come on the heels of last year’s end of the federal program to provide free lunch for every public school student, which led to a decline in food insecurity of 7 percentage points among households with children facing economic insecurity. While we appreciate that today’s evolving vending machines are capable of offering fresher options, school lunches are more likely to offer healthier alternatives to the proverbial chips and candy bars children can purchase in school vending machines.

With cuts to SNAP benefits that range from $55 to $250 per person, communities nationwide are bracing, yet again, for long lines at food pantries with neighbors in need. In Georgia, the Atlanta Community Food Bank — which serves about one in every 10 residents in the Atlanta metro area — has reported a 40% increase in demand since additional benefits expired.

Without systemic policy change to strengthen and sustain our nation’s social safety nets, marginalized communities will be further marginalized, and inequities exacerbated. Long-term problems require long-term solutions. The end of COVID-era federal programs will shift the burden of hunger from the federal government to states and charities — and, ultimately, to families already trying to make ends meet. Just as we appreciate charming Little Free Libraries, we know the diapers and cans of soup tucked into them indicate sober realities. No matter how charming, often with clever construction or hand-painted designs, these are today’s telling — and gratis — vending machines.

We are heartened to discover neighbors helping one another, but inequities have revealed why healthy communities require reliable social safety nets. Kind societies care for one another: Leadership requires us to be nimble and resourceful while looking out for one another.

When designing durable social safety nets, policymakers can learn from the entrepreneurialism and convenience of vending machines, which meet individual demand with a mix of simple “push button” options that best meet community needs. Innovative pilot programs such as the Partnership for a Healthier America and the National Automatic Merchandising Association collaboration allowing vending machines with nutritious, eligible products to accept SNAP benefits help increase access in underserved communities. Such vending machines have the added benefit of reducing the social stigma often associated with the act of waiting in line at a food bank for face-to-face interactions. Before contactless payments became ubiquitous, vending machines relied on our nickels and dimes. What’s needed today is a different sort of change.

The recent years vividly demonstrate that we are all capable of change, and there is no better time to consider how far we have come and where we wish to go. Just as workers and consumers have adapted admirably, even if not always happily, we are capable of more. As we mark the third anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can do better. For one another, we must do better.


Terry Babcock-Lumish, an honorary research associate at Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment, developed a keen interest in vending machines while working at the United States Mint. Terry can be reach by email or on LinkedIn.

Fiona Walsh, is co-founder of the Mesurado Cooperative. Fiona is a global health consultant based in Boston, Massachusetts. Fiona can be reach by email or on LinkedIn.

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