It isn’t often that a master’s thesis has the makings of a bestseller but after Leanne Brown’s student project appeared on the social networking site Reddit, traffic to her own website jumped from 80 to 50,000 people per day.
“I thought it was hackers,” said Brown, “but it was wonderful people writing to say this means so much and it will help me personally.”
The object of their desire was a cookbook of sorts, which offered recipes for great-tasting meals at low cost while emphasizing the importance of cooking skill over expensive ingredients. Brown had come up with the project to address the issue of food insecurity — the 46 million Americans on SNAP (formerly food stamps) who must eat on $4 per day.
She had planned to use her degree in the relatively new field of Food Studies to work for a nonprofit group, but the overwhelming response to her thesis convinced her otherwise. One Kickstarter campaign later and Brown had a print run of 40,000 books and a two-month, multicity tour.
“Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day” (Workman Publishing, $16.95) has the distinction of being a cookbook meant for people who may not be able to afford a cookbook. So for each book purchased, one is given to someone in need. A partnership with Access Wireless helps get the book in the hands of low-income individuals nationwide while nonprofit organizations that purchase books to distribute to clients receive a discount on bulk orders. The original project is still available as a free downloadable PDF at leannebrown.com.
While she acknowledges she is no nutritionist, Brown insisted that the food taste good and that the book look as beautiful as any other modern cookbook. “There is a huge amount of information about how to eat on a budget, but a lot of those sources are so focused on the bottom line,” Brown said. “They don’t take into account how things taste.” Poverty should not mean a lack of pleasure, she says.
In testing a few of her recipes, I found that the beef stroganoff brought back delicious childhood memories and the recipe for peanut sauce is one of the best I’ve found. I poured the sauce over broccoli and coconut rice as directed in one recipe and used the remainder the next day as a dipping sauce for veggies. Brown includes breakfast, lunch and dinner options in the book, as well as snacks, desserts and more.
Each recipe includes per serving and total cost estimates which Brown calculated by using prices from four grocery stores in a mixed-income community in New York. She emphasizes the importance of tailoring the recipes to fit your particular budget and taste. If you don’t eat meat, you can sub in tofu. If you don’t have chickpeas on hand, use pinto beans.
When she first began turning her project into a book, she tried to create meal plans, but she quickly realized how limiting that may be for families already struggling with so little time and resources. So this cookbook, she says, is also a strategy guide designed to teach readers the power of cooking. “I wanted to empower people, not just have them following directions,” she says.
In addition to recipes, she offers tips on seasonal food shopping, buying in bulk, kitchen equipment and ways to make the most of leftovers. She also gives pointers on how to accumulate pantry items, spices and other higher cost foods over time.
“People on SNAP are going though hard times. I want food not to be a terrifying, awful struggle,” Brown says. “I want people to eat well and believe that they deserve to eat well.”