Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day started as Leanne Brown's thesis project for her master's in food studies at New York University. "$4 a day means something really specific," Brown says. "It's the amount, on average, that a person who is living on food stamps or SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, basically has to work with." Brown made the project available online for free -- it has since been downloaded 800,000 times.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: How did this book come to be?
Leanne Brown: It started out as my thesis project for my master's degree at NYU in food studies. I didn't want my thesis to just be read by my adviser and my mom. I really wanted it to be something that could be used by other people outside academia that might have a lasting impact.
I actually made it available online. It very quickly went viral. I was astonished by the response. It was so exciting to hear so many people being encouraging. They were saying how much it meant to them to have a cookbook that was useful for them, that hearkened back for some people to their childhood growing up with very little money. People were sharing stories.
I knew that I needed to work to get the book out there further. I wanted to make it available to people who weren't online. So I decided to do a Kickstarter project. But since the idea was to make the cookbook available for people who couldn't necessarily afford it, we stole the Toms Shoes model -- we did the buy-one-give-one model for the Kickstarter to fund it.
That was a lot more popular than I ever thought it was going to be. We asked for $10,000. I thought, "If we have $10,000, we'll be able to print about 500 books. My husband and I will be able to manage that. We'll distribute it to some great nonprofit."
But the world had other plans for us. We ended up with $144,000 and a print run of 40,000. Which was both so exciting but so terrifying at the same time. I remember there was this point where there was this truck from Wisconsin that was coming loaded down with books and we didn't have a place for it to go. We managed to solve that problem, but it was hairy for a little while.
LRK: Why did you pick $4 a day?
LB: $4 a day means something really specific. It's the amount, on average, that a person who is living on food stamps or SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, basically has to work with. And that $4 a day, it's better to think about it more in terms of $30 a week, maybe $120 a month -- it's like a budget range.
Of course that looks really different if you're a single person or if you have maybe a larger family -- you're going to be making different kinds of choices, your meals are going to look very different. I wanted the book to have options for people who have a different type of household. I wanted people who are single to have meals that they thought, "That would really fit into my lifestyle," and people with larger families to see the same things.
LRK: Can you do three meals on $4 a day?
LB: I believe you can. That is not to say that it is easy, or that it is a good situation. Really it's tough, but there are 46 million people in this country who are doing it every day. I wanted to create a resource that would show how to stretch that further, how to get the most out of it and how to have some really joyful, really delicious food at the same time.
LRK: Give me some examples.
LB: Because it's high summer and we have beautiful tomatoes and cucumbers, I've been really into making the panzanella salad. It is just this very old-school Italian salad. It's based on day-old or even older bread -- hard bread that you knock on the side of the table and would probably just throw out.
But instead you tear it up, throw it into your bowl with juicy, juicy tomatoes, luscious cucumbers and any other fruit that you have around. You toss it all together and the hard bread becomes this flavor sponge. The whole thing is just absolutely delicious, satisfying and the perfect summer lunch.
LRK: There's something else you do, which I thought was really clever. Talk about your burger.
LB: The Half-Veggie Burger. One thing a lot of people notice is that there isn't a huge amount of meat in the book. That is for totally practical reasons. Meat can be very expensive. If we make it the center of every meal, it can just be very expensive. We don't need quite as much of that protein as people traditionally think.
A half-veggie burger is basically a way to have that flavor that is so important for a lot of people while stretching that out with lentils, ground-up chickpeas, or other legumes and vegetables in the burger. You have this lovely, satisfying thing. That need that we all have in the summer to eat a juicy burger -- you can still have that without using quite as much of the meat.
LRK: You've put a price on every recipe. This one says it's 90 cents a serving.
LB: Yes. There's so much that you can do when you are making a large quantity of something. You can use it a few different ways. Maybe you'll use those patties to have burgers one day, and then the next day you might use it for breakfast, or you might throw it onto a salad. It's wonderful to make these large quantities of something and then repurpose them to make your diet more exciting.
LRK: What should we have on-hand in stocking the pantry?
LB: I think we all want to try to build for ourselves a really great pantry of flexible, basic things like grains, dried beans and cans of tomatoes. I always have lemons on-hand (lemons or limes to squeeze onto things) and garlic. These are my basics. Then when you have those things around, you can augment that with fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables.
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