A Cookbook to Help Food Stamp Recipients Cook Cheaply Becomes a Massive Viral Hit

I think anyone who cares about food realizes that we’ve started to engage, as a society, with problems of unequal access. 

There are conversations happening all over the country about “food deserts,” about farmers’ markets and urban farms in neglected neighborhoods, about making sure that healthy and sustainable isn’t just a thing for rich people. Ethical foodies, as the brilliant Mark Bittman wrote recently, understand that really caring about food has to move beyond personal pleasure to embrace social fairness as well.

But imagine for a moment that everyone who wanted good food—organic produce, humanely raised meat, ethically sourced fish, fruit picked by properly paid labor—could easily get to somewhere where it is sold. The problem of equal nutrition wouldn’t yet be solved, because the budgets of some people buying food are very small. The 40 million people in families that receive food stamps—technically, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—get an average $133 per month for food.

That’s about $4 per day, for three meals, for a family, though it’s less than most of us spend by ourselves for a morning coffee. To eat well on that tiny amount, you have to be canny and creative. Most of all, though, you have to know how to cook—not showily, Food Network style, but thriftily, from dried beans and root vegetables and the bony bits of meat. It’s the sort of thing that our grandmothers and great-grandmothers knew, but that most of us never had to learn.

Thank the food gods, then, for Leanne Brown, a 29-year-old Canadian who began as a political activist, moved to New York City to study food policy, volunteered in food-access programs, and learned from the people she was helping what they needed and wanted to know about how to cook and eat well.

Author Leanne Brown

Author Leanne Brown

Her response was a cookbook, Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day. It began as a free pdf with a CC license. Then it got so popular—the 200,000 downloads broke her site several times—that she perceived an opportunity: If people were willing to buy the book, she could use the proceeds to fund printed copies for people with limited computer access. Thus was born Good and Cheap’s Kickstarter campaign. It launched in mid-May with a goal of $10,000. It ended two weeks ago having earned almost $145,000 from 5,636 backers: enough to fund 6,000 free copies and another 25,000 that nonprofits can buy at a super-discounted $4. So far, 450 nonprofits have asked.

When I talked to Brown earlier this week, she still sounded slightly dizzy. “We made our goal in the first 36 hours,” she said. “My concept of ‘smash success’ got redefined every day.”

Veggie jambalaya dish from Leanne Brown's new cookbook.

Veggie jambalaya dish from Leanne Brown’s new cookbook.

The genius of Good and Cheap is that it isn’t just “recipes for food-stamp users,” what Brown described with a wince as “photocopied a bunch of times from a 1970s church cookbook, and not very inspiring.” The original pdf, and no doubt the book too (coming later this year) is beautifully designed, spacious and sleek with an indie vibe. It contains healthy but tasty-sounding recipes—shrimp and grits, vegetable jambalaya, smoky-spicy cauliflower, coffee cake—presented in a warm, you-can-do-this tone.

That probably explains why the Internet responded so powerfully to the idea of the book. In addition to its overwhelming Kickstarter support, Good and Cheap has been championed on Reddit and covered by TakePart, The Daily Meal, and Lifehacker, who see it as a book for anyone who wants to eat well without spending too much.

Brown hasn’t lost her focus, though, on producing what she calls “a nice cookbook, for people who can’t afford a cookbook.”

“I’ve gotten so many emails—heartwarming, heartbreaking emails—from people who tell me what this would have meant for them, growing up, to have guidance like this,” she said.

In the book’s introduction she speaks to that hoped-for audience candidly and kindly.

“There are thousands of barriers that can keep us from eating in a way that nourishes our bodies and satisfies our tastes,” she writes. “Money just needn’t be one of them… Cooking on a limited budget is not easy, and there are times when a tough week can turn eating into a chore. I hope the recipes and techniques in this book help make those times rare and tough choices a little more bearable.”

Though the Kickstarter is over, you can still buy Good and Cheap, and support Brown’s mission to get the book out to people who need it, via her website. You can tip her for the pdf ($5); buy a copy just for yourself ($20); buy one and give one or two away ($25 and $29); or give multiples: $100 gets one for you and 10 donations. (Nonprofits who want to buy in bulk should go here instead.)

Brown—who, in the midst of this, just got married—is aiming for an August manuscript deadline and publication by the end of the year. After that, she hopes to start telling the stories of the groups and food pantries where her cookbooks went, and what people learned from them.

I hope she does. I’d love to know more about where the copies of these books end up, and who cooks from them. And I can’t wait for mine.

Book cover.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.

11 comments
Nancy Gardner
Nancy Gardner

 This isn't a new concept we have been teaching these same concepts through the Family Nutrition Program (FNP)(about 20 years) and the (EFNEP) (almost 50 years)  Expanded Food and Nutrition Program to SNAP recipients.  They have numerous success stories about how people are empowered to feed their children nutritious food. This cookbook maybe an overnight success but teaching these people how to break out of their circle of poverty is not accomplished overnight.  These concepts are not new.  Google EFNEP or FNP, or kidsacookin' recipes and you will find numerous resources for providing nutritious food for your family.  This isn't about you making gourmet meals for your families.  This is about engaging your children in helping you prepare just plain old food, which by the way is healthy.      

Celia Holder
Celia Holder

Wonder if this is possible on Maui where a loaf of bread can be $6.00.  Interesting.  


Jenna Gill
Jenna Gill

this is kind of beautiful... glad to see that compassionate people are creating useful things.

Annimal Ashes
Annimal Ashes

Any plans in the works to write a vegan one? Some of us on disability/food stamps need this type of resource. I find this website helpful, but it is still difficult to have enough to eat.


http://plantbasedonabudget.com

Lisa Taylor
Lisa Taylor

What an altruistic, noble accomplishment. I got so tired of Pollan's  and other "foodies'" books about the importance of families preparing their feast together, sitting down to share in their efforts and bond and appreciate, blah, blah, blah, when the poor and hungry don't have that luxury. Just more examples of well-intentioned but cloistered people glossing over or ignoring the  tragedy of poverty and hunger (whoever came up with "food insecurity" should be ashamed of himself).


I haven't seen the book's contents; if animal products are included in the recipes I can't support it in good conscience. I'll continue to support my local food pantry, urban garden initiatives, and organizations that work to teach true nutrition information/benefits, provide resources and access to whole foods and training in preparing simple plant-based meals. A healthy whole food, plant-based diet is the cheapest and most beneficial way to eat, gain optimal health, heal the earth, and the only non-violent option.


Just an FYI, I took the 30-day Feed America challenge last year, trying to live off $135 of food (I included my pets' food, too, as they are my family). I'm a GF vegan who lived in an apartment in the third richest county in the US. I ran out of money by the 15th day. I asked my state and county legislators to take the challenge, too; none did. Can you imagine if I was buying meat and milk instead of legumes--granted I bought some prepared foods like Amy's vegan chili. Making a big batch would've been more cost-effective but I live with chronic illness/pain that makes it difficult to prepare more than the simplest, easiest meals.


Still, I do know that living a vegan lifestyle has improved my quality of life immeasurably. And full CBC (blood work) shows no vitamin or mineral deficiencies.


Had to add my two cents but wanted to give kudos for her commitment, compassion, and passion in furthering the cause of healthy food and good health for ALL Americans. 

Mary Yee
Mary Yee

Really interesting post!  Now that my church is newly put in charge of a food shelf, I'll look into this because the cookbook may be useful to our clients.  (Might be eye-opening for the rest of us as well.)

Jacqueline Church
Jacqueline Church

Fantastic story. I cannot believe we don't teach cooking in schools anymore. Almost no schools I know of have Home Ec any more. I often argue this is a basic life skill: learning how to feed one's self - even more critical than algebra. (I know, I know, but I believe this to be true.)

This has so much potential to do good. Can't wait to see this!

Laura Little
Laura Little

@Lisa Taylor "if animal products are included in the recipes I can't support it in good conscience."


Lisa, I don't know if you realize this, but the above argument is not that distant from the classic conservative boogeyman that those on SNAP are "immorally" buying lobster and being fiscally irresponsible.


I have been vegetarian nearly half my life. But it is not my place to judge or criticize others' choices to eat animal products - especially the poor, who are already vulnerable and struggling to provide nutrition to their families. Veganism in the Western world is a luxury lifestyle that requires a considerable amount of education and management to be successful at. It requires putting everything one eats under a microscope of not only cost, but ethics and origins. Do you really want to add this additional hurdle to the poor, who are already facing immense challenges when it comes to providing high-quality nutrition?


Our current food system is unsustainable and problematic, and all actors in the system (including consumers across the economic spectrum) will need to adjust to change to fix it. However, do you really think overconsumption of animal products is a problem the poor are causing? To follow your line of thinking to its logical endpoint, do you think the West should tell Africans to stop consuming meat and dairy because it's the only way to "optimum health" and the only "non-violent" way? Would you sincerely wish to uproot cultures that have existed for hundreds of years to satisfy ideals that throughout history have been the property of cultural/economic elites?

I should think as an ethically minded person, you would be in favor of alleviating the burden on the poor, even they eat items that offend your vegan sensibilities. 


Amanda Tanner
Amanda Tanner

@Lisa Taylor Hi Lisa. I agree with your comments about the problems of universally moralizing people on food stamps without much basis for understanding their lives. However, as a sociologist who has been involved in empirical research among populations on food stamps (specifically, the WIC program in Chicago - Women, Infants, and Children) - I have concluded that time is, in fact, a dilemma faced by many single mothers who want to provide nourishing food to their dependents. Most women I spoke to had two or three jobs and faced decisions about whether to, at the end of their long working days, to spend more time away from their children preparing what they considered to be 'gourmet' meals to their children or whether to put their feet up, spend actual quality time with their children, and provide fast but filling food in exchange for the prior two priorities.

These are actual and not imagined challenges to families who work in exchange for nutritional assistance through food stamps. I was humbled to listen to their stories about how they (rightly) prioritize their children's happiness over imposed ideas about what a bountiful table 'should' mean to families. For them, it wasn't about nutritional charts but providing enough caloric intake that their children wouldn't feel hungry at school the next day and that enough universally appealing food (i.e., potatoes instead of brussel sprouts) was offered so that program stamps wouldn't go to waste due to individual tastes.

Maryn McKenna
Maryn McKenna

@Jacqueline Church Thank you! Another Facebook friend and I have talked periodically about the idea of a "Civilian Cooking Corps" modeled on the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s. You can come too if you like. :)

Jim Smith
Jim Smith

@Laura Little Hi Laura, I agree with Lisa, and I don't believe that it's an argument similar to the lobster argument at all. I believe that animal agriculture, when you take into account the raising of food for animals as well, has been demonstrated (as shown in the documentary Cowspiracy) to be the single biggest contributor to global warming, deforestation of the rain forests and water scarcity that we have. In addition, I believe that eating animals is responsible for the majority of major diseases and the high cost of health care in our country. I believe there are many, many issues with eating animal products that affect society at large.


It's my opinion that we should encourage everyone to adopt a diet that consists mainly of fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains and nuts. And to not do so in the SNAP program would be to betray our own ideals --- not to mention the continual destruction of our environment, our health care systems, our economy and our own bodies.

Trackbacks

  1. […] A Cookbook to Help Food Stamp Recipients Cook Cheaply Becomes a Massive Viral Hit – The Plate: Mar…. […]

  2. […] Good and Cheap is a free/donation-based ebook filled with recipes geared toward helping you eat on $4 a day — which is the average amount SNAP (food stamp) recipients have to spend. […]

  3. […] healthfully while eating cheaply means cooking know-how is a must. This cookbook tackles the issue of food stamp-cooking—and became a huge hit. […]

  4. […] A Cookbook to Help Food Stamp recipients Cook Cheaply […]

  5. […] the recipes already out there for eating cheaply didn’t look or sound very appealing. She described them as “photocopied a bunch of times from a 1970s church cookbook, and not very […]

  6. […] weeks ago, I wrote about Leanne Brown’s project Good and Cheap, a cookbook and project to teach simple recipes and skills that had massive Kickstarter […]

  7. […] closed, she had raised nearly $145,000 from over 5,000 backers, far surpassing her $10,000 goal. The Plate estimates it’s “enough to fund 6,000 free copies and another 25,000 that nonprofits can buy at a […]

  8. […] the recipes already out there for eating cheaply didn’t look or sound very appealing. She described them as “photocopied a bunch of times from a 1970s church cookbook, and not very […]

  9. […] three of us were inspired by the success of Leanne Brown’s Good and Cheap, a cookbook designed to address the needs of people receiving public assistance, showing them how […]

  10. […] cookbook for people on food stamps. (Thanks, […]

  11. […] further reading on Leanne Brown’s cookbook click here and […]

  12. […] After the free PDF had been downloaded more than 200,000 times, Brown took the opportunity to launch a Kickstarter campaign back in May in order to use the proceeds to fund printed copies for those without access to computers. She started with a goal of $10,000, and eventually raised almost $145,000. […]

  13. […] cookbook is hit, even if fans may not always have thought through its political valence [Maryn McKenna, National Geographic "The Plate"] Push to make food stamp program data public [Slate, USDA […]

  14. […] budget” cookbook is hit, even if fans may not always have thought through its political valence [Maryn McKenna, National Geographic "The Plate"] Push to make food stamp program data public [Slate, USDA […]