An Interview with Leanne Brown, Author of the (Free) $4 a Day SNAP Cookbook

by Jhenifer Pabillano

Leanne Brown is a Canadian-born NYU food studies graduate whose masters’ project was Good and Cheap, a free PDF cookbook for food stamp budgets ($4/day). She posted the PDF on her website, and it was downloaded over 100,000 times after being discovered by Reddit. Now, she’s launched a Kickstarter to print the book so she can get copies to people in need, and she’s already well past its initial $10,000 goal. I recently talked to her about cooking on limited incomes, food studies, her experience with Kickstarter, and more.

Can you tell me a bit about what inspired you to write the book?

The honest answer is that I was really interested in food stamps because they were not something we had in Canada. So I was researching this whole group of people who eat food on this little card — it was such a weird class differentiator that really fascinated me. And then I got pissed off.

If you eat on food stamps, there isn’t a lot of stuff to help you do that well. Eating on little money is very difficult. The working poor usually have two jobs and kids and not a lot of time and energy, and that makes it all the harder. And if you grew up in a family that didn’t cook, or isn’t adventurous with food, you won’t know how to cook good things for yourself. You’re kind of stuck with what you grew up with, because you don’t have the experience to know how to make the best of what you’re given.

Did you talk to people who were poor when you were writing the cookbook?

It was very tough to get permission to do formal interviewing with low-income folks, so I conducted casual research by working with grocery store clients in WIC, the federal Women with Infant Children nutritional program. Low-income women who are pregnant or have children up to age of 5 get pediatrician access and all kinds of great stuff, and they get allotments for foods. But they’re given money for specific types of food that are good for kids growing up, like whole grains and fresh fruit. It’s a much more structured program than SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the name used for food stamps].

So the WIC program I did in New York is part of Public Health Solutions. I would take people down the aisles of a grocery store and talk about the different healthy things you could eat. I would try to share stuff that I liked eating because people shut down when you talk about nutrition. When you say, “Oh man, have you ever tried eggplant with bacon, and a bit of cheese?” then you can have a conversation about what their food challenges are.

So my casual research was talking to all these different women and men, because sometimes a dad would be picking up the WIC check for the month. It was a great experience. I talked to these adults, and their kids too. If their kids would chat a bit, it was so fun to hear what they thought about food. It was really fun to have the kids involved.

What did you learn?

A lot of my assumptions about poor people were challenged. Lots of people who gave me advice when it came to my cookbook said: “Poor people don’t have this. They don’t have this.” But even the nicest people who are advocates for the poor make a lot of assumptions and paint people with a broad brush, as though all SNAP recipients have the same life. There’s 47 million people in the country who are on food stamps. They’re not homogeneous.

Some people are homeless and have nothing. Obviously I can’t make a cookbook for those people. But there’s people who need just a little bit of help. Maybe they have a blender because they see it as important. And many women were first-generation immigrants. They talked about all the food that they miss in their home countries.

How do you make the most of shopping and cooking when you’re on a restricted income? Are there any basic tools you think are needed?

I tried to share my basic tips on that in the beginning of the book. There’s some very simple concepts. Buy things you can think of five or six different uses for — that’s my number one advice. Always buy eggs. Don’t buy drinks. Think about vegetables and fruits for flavor — don’t think about them as, “ugh, i have to eat vegetables,” but that pepper and onion make rice taste good. And meat and protein is well and good, but it shouldn’t be the center of the plate. It’s not affordable and it’s not healthy.

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 $0.80 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.

What tools might you focus on if you’ve only got a little bit of money? Maybe if you’re dropping by a thrift store and you want to know what you should snap up if you see it?

Really important tools can include a really good chef’s knife and a cutting board. Those are just crucial. Beyond that, you want to have a good sauté pan and a nice pot. And if at all possible, a cast-iron pan is good to have. It’s naturally nonstick, you can grill on it, you can put it in the oven and on the stovetop. And they last forever! You can get a raw cast iron pan and you can usually find them cheap in thrift stores.

A blender of some kind is useful too. You can make lots of stuff faster. Also, I have a Microplane. I probably use it every day. They were originally woodworking tools, so they stay super-sharp forever. Mine was like $15 and I think I use it every time I cook. You can use it for mincing garlic, zesting, for cheese, for whole spices.

What’s your relationship with money when it comes to food? Do you try to stretch a dollar as much as you can? Do you have splurge items? Are there items that you always try to save on?

I think I have an approach that’s “good and cheap,” but I have a more flexible budget. I think of things in terms of value. I don’t like to just pay a lot for something for no reason. If there’s a fancy can of tomatoes and it’s $7, I’m like, “why?”

I buy the things that are important to me and have added social value. I think it’s worth it to buy, if you can, fresh eggs from a farmer’s market, from chickens that run around outside. Ethically, I think that’s extremely important because I think chickens deserve to not be miserable. But also because the taste between a factory-farmed egg and a fresh egg is so vast. And also, cheap eggs can be $1 a dozen. Fresh eggs are about $5–6 a dozen. They’re not that much more expensive when you think about it. It’s an extra fifty cents an egg. It’s very low cost to go from low-quality eggs to high-quality eggs.

There’s also a lot of things that are just great and inexpensive. I cook with dried beans and peas. Those are very very cheap. I like them more, and soaking them doesn’t take much more time to prepare when you need them. Serious bean people always say you have to get the dried ones anyway.

So let’s talk about Kickstarter campaign. You’ve started a Kickstarter to crowdfund print copies of your book, so you can get physical copies to those in need. And so far you’ve far exceeded your original $10,000 goal. Why do you think the project has resonated with so many people right now?

I think maybe there’s more awareness of the economy being crappy. When you talk about these experiences, everyone knows someone who has been really poor — even just being a student. You think of it as transitional, but there was a point when you were poor.

It’s more than that, though. There’s a lot more people who are into this than those who are poor or experiencing that right now. People just think it’s cool to be able to eat cheaply. And lots of people want to do something good.

Good and modern food that happens to be inexpensive — it’s bringing out kindness in all sorts of people. Lots of people are excited to donate the book. So many have picked the Kickstarter reward of buy one, give ten books. Some say, “I don’t need a reward, I just want to pay into the project.” They see this as maybe a missing piece of a puzzle that we’re all circling around. It’s not going to fix everything, but it’s a little tiny contribution to that.

I know reaction has been huge from the public — can you talk a bit about that?

It’s so heartwarming and really overwhelming. People write to me all the time now and it totally makes me cry. I get emails that say things like, “I was on disability, and it feels like nothing good has happened to me in years, and Good and Cheap is such a wonderful thing and thank you so much.” The public reaction has been so amazing and so humbling. 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. I want to continue to do things that scare the shit out of me because this is something that means so much to these people. I owe it to them.

Can you talk about how your Kickstarter has been successful, in a technical campaign-focused way?

When my friend Don ran for city council in my hometown, we had no money, so the value was in volunteers and our message. I have a really great message, and the challenge when you have a great product is how to get it out there. Just like on the campaign, I got it out through volunteers and word of mouth and networks. Major, major outreach.

I think the reason it got funded up to $10,000 in the first few days was I wrote a list of every single person I know, who I thought would be interested at all. I wrote them and told them about this and I did that personally. Any mass email, you’re a bit skeptical. But a personal email, you need to respond to that. I did that for my whole network and I asked everyone to pass it on. I don’t think I have a bigger network than the average person. But because the message was good, people jumped on it! I’d say that 10% of the first bunch were people I knew. I’m still amazed that strangers were funding it. I thought it was just going to be my friends and family.

The other huge advantage I have was when I got Reddited at the end of April. I only had a 98% finished version of the cookbook up when it got thousands of downloads, so I put up a Google Form for people to give their email to be notified when the final copy of the book became available. And I ended up with 1500 emails on that list. So I sent it out to those people. I can’t know for sure, but I think that helped.

What’s it like being a food studies student, by the way? Do you just stare at food all day?

That’s what people do in their off hours. That’s what motivated them to start the program. What we do is read long and complicated articles about things like the economics of broccoli.

Food studies is a very new field. NYU is like the oldest, and it’s only about 12 years old. And it’s great because it has [amazing food scholar] Marion Nestle. You can major in food systems, or food and culture. I chose the systems side because I was more interested in the policy stuff: “How do we build a food system that’s environmentally sustainable?” There’s no way to say, “hey, this’ll work itself out” — it’s so big and complicated. What giants like Wal-Mart have done to make shipping so efficient has had spillover effects on everything. It’s changed the way food is distributed, and has gotten food to more people. But that same distribution system has made it really hard on the environment.

So in food studies we get to the meat of these problems. What is the fair way of doing these things? Government, industry: what are their roles? Good and Cheap is a little step on the way to finding a solution.

Jhenifer Pabillano is a nice person who works in social media in Vancouver, BC, Canada. She reads a lot and spends way too much time on the Internet.