If there ever were a time for vegan vending machines, it is now

High-tech vegan vending.
High-tech vegan vending.
Image: Photo courtesy of leCupboard.
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A new company is looking to plant vegan vending machines in strategic locations across the US, and it’s got more than $2.2 million in seed money to get started.

These aren’t the same sort of humdrum machines in which a person might find potato chips and candy bars. They contain prepared meals including chia pudding breakfast cups, lentils, and zucchini noodle bowls with walnut pesto, according to Eater, at an average cost of about $8.

The maker of the leCupboard wants to take food vending to a whole other level. That includes programming ways to help consumers choose the right meal to fit their diet, placing the machines in high-traffic food deserts, and one day partnering with health insurance companies to make their meals affordable.

“The goal is to reconnect preventative healthcare with food,” says Lamiaâ Bounahmidi, the founder and CEO of leCupboard. “Everyone is going around talking about food as medicine, but there is more to it than going organic or eating vegetables.”

If ever there were a time for vegan vending machines to take hold in the US, it is now. The United Nations pronounced 2016 as a high point for legumes; high-tech vegan foods are beginning to trickle their way into grocery stores and celebrity chef restaurants; a few major public school systems are meatless on Mondays; and the North American obesity epidemic is driving more consumers to consider plant-based protein over meat. Even Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow has gotten in on the trend, recently hosting a crystal-laden vegan retreat through Goop, her personal health brand. Additionally, concerns over animal agriculture’s contribution to climate change has vegans pouncing on an opportunity to appeal to people who might otherwise ignore their calls to eat less meat.

Combined, those trends have helped to create a veritable breeding ground from which new plant-heavy businesses can sprout. Some are making high-tech alternatives to milk. Others are as simple as health food vending, though so far that’s been more prominent in Great Britain than America.

People who walk up to leCupboard’s “soil to software” machines—currently only in San Francisco—are able to interact with them to figure out the best meal for that particular moment. If a diabetic wants to avoid strawberries, the machine makes suggestions based on that information. The company has been researching and developing the vending machines for the last four years, and ultimately wants to work within health providers and the federal food stamp program to find ways to feed undernourished populations at an affordable rate, Bounahmidi says.

Right now she has been rolling out 10 vending machines since October 2016, each peppered across strategic locations in San Francisco. She hopes to scale up to 30 machines in the next three months, and then to 200 within the next 12 months as her business expands to new markets, potentially including Midtown in New York City, she said.

Bounahmidi says the marketing will emphasize the food as “plant-based” to avoid any political association with the vegan movement. The goal, Bounahmidi explains, is to move beyond single food issues such as veganism, genetically modified food spats, and the obsession with organic. The real battle is switching from a quantity-per-dollar mindset to one that emphasizes nutrients-per-dollar.

“The way we talk about food and the way we sell value to the user needs to change,” she says.