In spring 2014, a year before Gwyneth Paltrow failed the food stamp challenge, a masters student at New York University was trying to find a nonprofit that would make use of her project: a cookbook of cheap, easy-to-follow recipes benefitting low-income families or anyone looking to trim the grocery bill.
When no groups took her on, Leanne Brown posted a PDF of the book online so that anyone could download it for free. A few weeks later, the book landed on a popular thread on the social network Reddit, which led to so many downloads it crashed her Web site.
After seeing the wide interest, Brown, who had moved to New York City from Canada, launched a Kickstarter campaign so that she could distribute hard copies of the book. She established a buy-one-give-one model, where each purchase leads to another copy of the book being sent to a family on a tight budget.
She asked for $10,000 and raised $144,000, allowing her to publish more than 40,000 copies of the book — the bulk of which were donated or sold for $4 each to nonprofits. People can still download the book from her Web site for free — it has been downloaded more than 900,000 times — but Brown is also partnering with Workman Publishing to distribute the latest version of the book, called “Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day,” on a wider scale.
She recently met with The Washington Post to demonstrate one of her recipes and to talk about which items people should put in their grocery carts if they want to save money.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Have you always enjoyed cooking?
So I’ve always been into social justice, but the thing I enjoyed personally the most was to cook. But I never wanted to be a chef. Part of that is because I love to put food in front of people, but I find it 10 times more satisfying to show them here’s how you make it and have them re-create it themselves.
What piqued your interest in nutrition for low-income families?
I think moving to the United States from Canada was a part of it, because we don’t have a SNAP program in Canada, so it stuck out. Over 46 million people in the United States are on food stamps right now. The population of Canada is 35 million people, so it struck me as a pretty big deal. And that’s people who are on food stamps, let alone all the people who can’t sign up or won’t sign up for food stamps because it’s too arduous. Seniors who are on fixed income, students, there are so many other people who could benefit from that situation.
How did you come to the number of eating for under $4 a day?
That is the average amount that a person living on food stamps has to work with per day. I started out calling this the SNAP cookbook, but then I realized anyone outside of my policy world would be like “what the heck is that?” So I decided after several months that “Good and Cheap” would be the main title, and that the subtitle being “Eat Well on $4 a Day” was much more inclusive without the sort of stigma of food stamps, in particular.
How do you get the books to the people who need it?
I initially thought we’ll work with a small nonprofit in New York. But when thousands of people all over the place started donating, I thought, “I can’t just give them away in New York.” So we decided to open it up to nonprofits. It’s at schools and recreation centers and farmers markets and, of course, food banks, which are probably the most common. There is so much more: all kinds of clinics, in some cases insurance markets that do a lot of Medicaid work. Libraries, like crazy. A few people have put on classes at a local library and gotten a case and given them out at the end of the class.
Is there any plan for wider distribution of the cookbook for low-income families?
Now I’m working with Workman Publishing, and they’ve agreed to continue the model of buy-one-give-one. Our donation partner is a group called Access Wireless. They are located in Cincinnati, and they’re a lifeline service provider. The program has been around since the 1980s, the Reagan era. They came to us because they work with the grocery chain Kroger, and when they found out about the book they were really excited. They warehouse all the donated books for us, and they send them out. At this point they’ve sent out more than 10,000.
What are the key changes that people can make to cut down how much they spend on food?
The first thing is to embrace cooking. Get into it. It will absolutely save you money even if you do it without a thought. The granddaddy of all tips is to buy food you can use in multiple ways. You know when you get a recipe and think “Oh gosh, I don’t have any of these things.” If you go to a store and are buying 30 things and only using like a teaspoon of each thing, that is not an efficient way to shop and to cook.
Are there certain recipes that can help people reduce waste?
One of my favorite dishes to talk about is the crustless quiche. We skip the crust because it’s a little bit of extra cost and it’s got a lot of butter in it, which can get expensive. You look in your fridge and you go “what do I have in here?” It can be whatever is left over from all the other stuff you’ve done. Eggs go with everything. It can be leftover chicken, it can be the wilted, kind of sad looking vegetables you wouldn’t want to put in a salad — you can put it in there. Then the egg custard is just eggs, some type of dairy, a little bit of cheese. Mix it all together and pour it over the top and bake it. And it’s a fancy, sort of special feeling dish. It’s great hot, it’s great cold.
What items should people always have in their pantry?
Don’t think of everything in terms of absolute cheapness, but in how much value it gives you.
Butter has more innate value than things like margarine and vegetable oils can. You don’t need as much of it and it adds flavor. Eggs are such a great thing to have around. They’re one of the great sources of protein for your dollar.
I really like to have some type of a dried grain, whatever your favorite is. At least a couple. Oats are so tremendously inexpensive. Rice is fantastic if you like that. But then, maybe, bread if that’s what you prefer. I like dried beans over canned beans, depending on the cost. Dried tends to be much cheaper, and it’s just a new habit you need to set up.
Then some of your favorite dried spices, start to slowly build that up. I also have a few other key things. I like keeping garlic around. Lemons and herbs as well. And then seasonal fruits and vegetables. Just go with what’s in season. In general, that is what’s going to bring you great variety to your diet.
When is it smart to buy food in bulk?
Generally anything that isn’t going to go bad. If you like rice, then get the giant bag of rice because it’s so much cheaper.
Spices are something that are great to buy in bulk. The price per pound is usually going to be much more affordable than what you would get in the little plastic containers.
Then potatoes and onions, certain types of vegetables that will last pretty well. Or even apples. You can buy a bag of those, but unless you have a plan for everything, don’t go super nuts.
How has this experience with the book changed your grocery habits?
I have become a lot more conscious of what really is the best value. All these simple changes add up: buying the bunch of spinach rather than the beautiful washed bag, which is double the price. Buying the one-pound-bag of carrots rather than one pound of baby carrots. Getting cans of tomatoes and garlic instead of jars of pasta sauce. All of those things will add up. And they’re not difficult things to do, they’re just new habits to get into.
A lot of times the excuse people give for not cooking more is that they don’t have the time. How much did you think about time when coming up with your recipes?
I prioritize cost and enjoyment, and I try to just provide a good variety of recipes. Some of them take longer, like making your own tortillas from scratch. But you can do it on a weekend and then have them. And others are incredibly quick. I think that once you make a habit of it, you’ll actually want to spend a little more time on it. I think the bigger time barrier, from talking to so many people, is almost more to do with the shopping and getting the food in your house and setting up your pantry and having the stuff ready to go. Because once you’re in the kitchen, you can have really great food in 20 minutes.
Are some of these strategies better for families versus single people?
I think it’s harder for single people. A family can buy larger amounts of certain things so that you can have more variation from day to day. The problem there is the intensity of needing to feed such a large number of people. And then it’s making sure everyone has a job. It shouldn’t be one person’s job to put dinner on the table for everyone. Maybe one person’s job is to cook, and someone else does the cleaning, and someone else can pick up the stuff. It just makes it a lot more reasonable and healthy.
Meat is generally more expensive, so how did you balance that factor when including it in your book?
There’s just much less of it. A lot of recipes use it as the main component, but for most of them it’s kind of a flavoring. For most cooking in the world, meat is really kind of a flavoring. Like in a pasta carbonara, you have bacon and it adds tremendous flavor. It’s wonderful, but it’s not the steak and potatoes, which is pretty unsustainable, and it’s not very good for us.
And you say that meat is not the only form of protein.
No! Of course there are eggs and tofu and all these other things. If you want meat you can certainly pay, you just need to make sure it’s not the center of your meal or you’re not going to have very much left over. So if you get a chicken, get the whole chicken. Roast it. Make sure to keep some of it and use it for stir fry, have it in your rice and beans.And make stock out of it. Just make sure to use it wisely and use every last bit of it.
Any other thoughts?
I want to tell the stories of all the people who write to me and tell me really incredible things about their lives. There’s so much stigma around the food stamp program and I think the best way to combat that is just to tell their stories. There was this woman I met in Seattle who said, “Wouldn’t it be great if food stamps, instead of being a mark of shame, were a badge of honor?” Yes! I don’t think I can change that, but I hope I can tell more stories and empower people to tell more stories.