Good and Cheap—and a Savory Summer Cobbler!

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As the capstone project for her master’s degree in food studies at New York University, Leanne Brown decided to write a cookbook for people on the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), better known as food stamps.

There are 47 million of them in the United States. The average SNAP stipend is $126 a month. My husband and I can easily spend twice that, without even living high on the proverbial hog.

Brown created Good and Cheap: A SNAP Cookbook, 132 pages of cooking tips and recipes anyone can make to eat for about $4 a day per person. She produced it as a PDF and made it available as a free download. It’s been downloaded more than 200,000 times since she posted it in June.

Print copies thanks to Kickstarter

Brown recognized that many people who needed help preparing good, cheap meals might not have ready access to a computer. So she also started a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds to publish a print version. She had a $10,000 goal and raised nearly $145,000.

Print copies are sold in bulk to nonprofit organizations, which can distribute them to their clients, for $4 apiece. (For information, visit Leanne’s blog.)

Good and Cheap is a great resource for anyone living on a tight budget. I would have loved it when I was newly married and we were living on graduate student assistantships totaling about $7,000 a year. (Granted, that was many years ago, but it was a piddling amount even then.)

To keep the costs down, Brown emphasizes inexpensive vegetables, legumes and grains over costly meat and fish. She loves eggs, a cheap, versatile source of protein.

“Eating is one of life’s greatest pleasures. In a perfect world, healthy and delicious food would be all around us. It would be easy to choose and easy to enjoy,” says Brown in the book’s introduction. “But of course it’s not a perfect world. There are thousands of barriers that can keep us from eating in a way that nourishes our bodies and satisfies our tastes. Money just needn’t be one of them. Kitchen skill, not budget, is the key to great food. This cookbook is a celebration of the many delicious meals available to those on even the most strict of budgets.”

Many barriers besides cost

She also recognizes that low-income families face other barriers besides cost. A major one is time. Many people in the SNAP program hold down more than one job and then have to deal with children as well. They simply don’t have the time to shop sensibly and cook from scratch, especially when it’s so much easier to buy cheap packaged food or stop at McDonald’s.

An article in Atlanta magazine described the problem perfectly earlier this year when the author and her husband decided to eat on a food stamp budget for a week. “Working mothers can follow [USDA] guidelines and prepare low-cost nutritious foods or can have a paying job … But many find it difficult to do both,” wrote Rebecca Burns. “[O]ur situation embodies the best-case scenario USDA nutritionists have in mind when they produce brochures on healthy cooking tips: We have time to cook, we have a well-equipped kitchen, and mostly importantly we have a car and thus can shop around for the good deals and quality foods.”

Still, says Brown, “The core of my idea is about empowering people through cooking. Cooking can have a tremendously positive impact on our wallets of course, but it’s also an amazing way to show love to yourself and others. It’s so much more satisfying to make food just the way you want it than to microwave a burrito or eat some lackluster  takeout. “Good cooking alone can’t solve hunger in America, but it can make life happier—and that is worth every effort.”

Alternatives to carbs and fast food

Brown says her intent was to give readers alternatives to filling their meals with cheap carbohydrates. And she’s not a slave to the bottom line. Many of her recipes use butter rather than oil. “Butter is not cheap, but it creates flavor, crunch, and richness in a way that cheap oils never can,” she says.

Readers who take Brown’s book seriously will realize it’s as much about method as about recipes. In most cases, a variety of ingredients can be used, so if you can’t find zucchini in the store, use eggplant, or if green beans are too expensive, substitute carrots.

She recommends buying one or two relatively expensive “pantry items” – olive oil, soy sauce, spices – each week. They’ll last a long time and do a lot to enliven your cooking. Some of her recipes need a blender or electric mixers, which her research showed her were fairly common among low-income families. She admits she’s not addressing the food needs of the homeless and others who don’t have access to a functioning kitchen.

Non-preachy advice

The beautiful photographs entice readers to try out the recipes, and there’s none of the preachy style that can sneak into publications aimed at telling poor people how they can and should be eating (compare Brown’s book to the USDA’s pamphlet on Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals, for example). Some advice from Brown, from an interview with Jhenifer Pabillano:

  • Buy things in their most raw state. Like, if you don’t have a lot of money, don’t buy the prewashed spinach. Buy the raw spinach for about half price and wash it. And baby carrots. Many people don’t know this, but they’re just a carrot that a machine has peeled into a baby form. So a pound of baby carrots is $2 a pound, while whole carrots are 80 cents a pound.
  • Compare prices against all the different ways to buy them. Think about canned and frozen too. If you can compare the prices, you can sometimes get better deals on those things.
  • And you do need to make a list before you go, because you don’t want to make impulse buys. Impulse buys are usually fatty things and that won’t last you.

Brown says she regularly hears from people in her target audience who are grateful for the book. “The public reaction has been so amazing and so humbling,” she told Pabillano. “And it’s such a cheesy thing to say, that it’s humbling, but I feel just so responsible to these people. They’re sharing details of their lives because they trust me. I feel so honored, and so motivated.”

Here’s a recipe from the book. Several of the people interviewed for a piece about Brown and her cookbook on NPR’s program, The Salt, said it was their favorite. I made it a week or so ago. I only had two zucchini so I added a small Japanese eggplant. I also found a wrinkled Jalapeno pepper in the bottom of the veggie drawer so I chopped that up and threw that in too, giving the dish a little added zip.

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  1. dennis archambault says

    Nice review, Bobbie. This is an important subject, offering hope for folks on very low incomes to make the most of little — and maybe find a lot more than they may have thought…

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