This Vending Machine Brings Grocery Basics Back to Food Deserts

The 'Speedy Shop' makes buying food and supplies easy and convenient.

(Photo: Eric Tucker/Getty Images)

Mar 24, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

When you live in a food desert and you suddenly need a gallon of milk, you don't have many fresh, convenient, or eco-friendly choices. Option A: burn up your car's gas driving to a grocery store that may be a significant distance away. Option B: take the time to walk, bike, or ride public transportation. Well, Peter Fox, a 50-year-old U.K.-based electrical engineer, has come up with option C: vending machines.

No, not the vending machine you buy a candy bar from in the afternoon when you're desperate for a snack. Fox has created the Speedy Shop, a sort of vending machine on steroids—it's about the size of a parking space—where folks who've lost access (or never had it in the first place) to a local market can use cash or a credit card to pick up food basics as well as toiletries, laundry detergent, and pet supplies.

Fox knows firsthand what it's like to not have a grocery store in the neighborhood. He lives in Ashbourne, a tiny—population 7,300—rural community two-and-a-half hours northwest of London, and noticed the trend of mom-and-pop stores closing. Village residents had no choice but to commute farther to the larger, big box grocery chains. As is the case in many urban and rural food deserts, buying even a loaf of bread became an ordeal.

Fox came up with the vending machine concept "a few years ago but I couldn't find a manufacturer who could deliver what I wanted," he told the Telegraph. "So I rolled up my sleeves and did it myself." He's spent the past three years using his engineering and tech know-how to create the Speedy Shop.

Now Fox's company, Village Vending, has two Speedy Shops running in the Ashbourne area—one on a local road and one at a traditional pub. The machines, which are patent pending, are weatherproof, and Fox designs the exteriors so that they blend in with the surroundings. They also come with security features so thieves can't bust in and steal the contents.

Before visiting the Speedy Shop, consumers can browse online to see whether what they need is in stock. When something runs out, the machines send Village Vending electronic restocking alerts. Along with orange juice, digestive biscuits, and strawberry jam, you can also buy essentials such as tampons and toilet paper. Fox is working to bring locally sourced produce to the machines too.

"It's hard to compete with the supermarkets on everything, but we can get pretty close, and when you take the travel time and costs into account, we think we can compete, and bring the village shop back to the village," said Fox.