Fueled by her frustration with the lack of equity and food stability in the United States, Leanne Brown wrote a cookbook, "Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day," as part of her graduate research work. The book, which includes functional resources like a seasonal chart, suggestions for kitchen equipment to have on hand and guidance on how to use meals for leftovers, has found incredible success since its launch in 2014 and is a tremendous tool for low-income kitchens. Leanne is at heart a celebrator of food and a seeker of fairness. She is fierce and kind and lovely to talk with. We picked Leanne's brain about food insecurity, the current administration's relationship to SNAP benefits and the role allies can have in the food justice movement.
What was the inspiration for writing your cookbook?
I came to New York from Canada to do the NYU Food Studies master's program where we're given an opportunity to pick our final thesis and devote a semester to it. I really wanted to make something that would have a life beyond academia and to make something I believed should exist. We don't have a food stamps program in Canada, but here, there are 44 million people on SNAP. There are only 35 million people in all of Canada. So looking at 44 million people who are eating on $4 a day, this is a really massive problem, like almost incomprehensibly large. And it's an issue I am struck by and wanted to do something about. So I asked myself: what skills do I have? My skills are cooking, and this could make life a little bit better for a few people and it could spread the joy and passion I have for cooking. I really think cooking can be a transformative thing; it's deeply empowering.
It's so deeply unfair, just the scorn that is heaped on folks that are dealing with poverty, how much harder it makes it to deal with these problems, which are nobody's fault. If there's anything that makes you feel that furious, you should try to channel that in some way.
So I was hoping to make a cookbook, but I never thought it would be the sort of big, incredible project that it has turned out to be.
After I graduated I had written the book but I hadn't really had a plan to distribute it because I didn't know how to do that, and I thought I would work with a few nonprofits. But no one said, "We'll hire you," so I just made a little website and put it on there for free. And I didn't tell many people about it because I was nervous about my role as its writer. And then someone on Reddit shared the cookbook on one of their message boards about healthy cheap eating and it sort of blew up there. I think something like 50,000 people downloaded it one night and it broke my website. And I received all these emails, and I was worried it was a bunch of conservative maniacs - you know how Reddit is. I just thought it was something awful at first. And it turned out to be these amazing people saying thank you so much and having this amazing conversation! And that really convinced me to put it out there. So that's what launched the Kickstarter. It's now been published and been so widely distributed that I get to go on speaking trips and connect to so many people. It's still hard to comprehend.
Do you have a personal connection to the subject?
My parents didn't have a lot of money but we were never afraid of where our next meal was coming from. I did have some friends who were in that position, but when you're a child you're less aware of these things. Child hunger is such a hidden problem. Someone you know could be struggling with food insecurity, but we don't wear it on our sleeve because it's something we shame in this culture as though it's someone's fault for being born into a situation. So actually, I don't have a personal connection. It's just something I've always really cared about. I've always had an interest in social justice. My first job out of college was working for the city in Edmonton, Canada and I've always just wanted to try to make the world slightly more fair for everyone, try to level the playing field. Even though I don't have a personal connection, these issues fill me with rage. It's so deeply unfair, just the scorn that is heaped on folks that are dealing with poverty, how much harder it makes it to deal with these problems, which are nobody's fault. If there's anything that makes you feel that furious, you should try to channel that in some way.
I was super nervous to put the book out there originally and didn't really feel worthy, because in some ways I don't have a clear connection. I often thought, am I the right person to do be doing this? Is this even appropriate? And for a long time when I first put it out there I was really tentative. I'm not good at marketing. I didn't tell a lot of people about it. Should I be doing this? Do people really want this? Luckily, people in the community found me and gave me the courage to put it out there and let the work speak for itself.
You wrote the book in 2014. Obviously a lot has changed with regards to the food system, politics and public services. Do you feel like the relevance of this book and the message has changed as well? Is the need for such a resource even greater?
I don't think that the need really is greater, but I think the message of the book is just as important if not more important. My message is outside of politics in some ways, which is not to say that it's not so important. The one thing I always say is this work is so important, but you can't cook yourself out of the problem of 44 million people not having enough food. That takes collective effort and policy changes and politics. But the message I have out there and the work we can do, I'm thrilled to say really does continue and people are still jazzed about it. People from all kinds of situations care about people having enough to eat. It's not controversial. And especially in the type of really well-off society that we have there's no reason for people to be hungry - it's ludicrous. I don't think it can bring people together from different sides of the aisle these days, but at least it's very hopeful that that's a commonality everyone can agree on. I said earlier that I've had absolutely no direct experience with being hungry in the way that some folks are; not knowing where my next meal is. But I can understand, I can relate to it. It's something that really brings people together, which is very, very hopeful.
It is disappointing that it doesn't translate into a clear direction, for clear support for these programs or for better funding and real work in the world that could actually make a difference in the lives of these 44 million people. There's a disconnect there, which is continually disappointing.
This has been a big month when it comes to proposals to SNAP. What are your thoughts on the Trump administration's proposal for a USDA "harvest box" to replace traditional SNAP benefits?
Honestly, it basically doesn't matter. There's no way they're doing that. It's so ridiculous, it would be so expensive. Their notion that it would be half the price currently, but we haven't factored in the delivery costs. And luckily - I guess knock on wood - but it really is untenable and Congress makes that policy, so the presidential administration is not much of a threat. But at the same time, what it does say is this administration does not give [a fig] about poor people. And they obviously think there's this absolute sense that if you are not rich it must be your fault because of flaws in you, and so we'll just give you the dregs and you better thank us for it. That's their attitude, and it's repulsive.
The discussion surrounding awareness of privilege and whiteness has also evolved since 2014. There are many who feel that the less privileged should be given a voice to advocate for issues surrounding poverty. How do you see "Good and Cheap" fitting into this evolving conversation, and how do you see your role?
I'm a privileged white lady from Canada. That was my discomfort when I initially put it out there. Do I have enough perspective to even be helpful here, or am I just being some goofball who thinks they can parachute in and save the day? And I like to think that I'm not, that I thought about this and talked to people enough and attempted to make something that really is as useful to people as can be, within my own huge limitations. But also, the thing about "Good and Cheap" that I really am the most proud of and ways I think it can fit into this conversation and really be empowering - instead of just being the Leanne Show - is that it's a resource that's freely available to people. And it's been downloaded over a million times. When we made hard copies, for every copy sold we wanted to donate one to someone who couldn't otherwise afford it. We've worked with hundreds of nonprofits across the country. So the really exciting thing about different nonprofits distributing the cookbook is that it's getting into the hands of, say a shelter for women who are running away from abusive relationships, maybe with their kids, and they're trying to start a new life with their family.
That's when cooking is at its best; it feels like you're at Hogwarts or something. You've done magic.
So much of what can be so scary at the beginning when you're trying to restart your life, just getting out of bed in the morning can be really hard and getting those basics like having three meals a day. Those are huge mountains to climb at the beginning. So much of getting people back on their feet and getting back out there is these really basic things, like cooking for yourself, feeling empowered, making sure you're not going over budget. It's so exciting that "Good and Cheap" ends up in one of these places and can get in the hands of a woman in this situation, and it can really have an effect on her. Maybe just a small effect, "Oh cool, the jumbalaya, I can make that!" It's not just me being, "You get one, you get one," Oprah-style. It's getting in the hands I hope of those who can really use it. It's really not about me at all. I made it, but it's this cool tool that people can use and they can use it however they want, and I love that about it. That makes me really proud.
Economical cooking is a practice everyone can benefit from, not just those on strict budgets. You do a remarkable job of laying out tools, pantry fillers and basic skills for a home cook. What would you say is the one skill in your cookbook that you'd like everyone to come away with?
Not even skill, but I think just attitude. I mean here's the dirty fact: not everyone is going to love cooking. But I hope everyone will try it and try it with an open mind. Because I really think that letting grilled cheese be "cooking" lets you make the food you want to eat. There's nothing magical, it's just, here's how to cook. And you naturally end up saving money, you naturally end up making healthy choices. When you get into it and think about it a little bit, put some of yourself into it, it just happens. And I think cooking sells itself. If you can just get over your fears a little bit, even just a little bit by going in and making a grilled cheese sandwich or making some rice or whatever it is, that you need to just try it. And that's been my experience with the folks that have written me and tried a few of the recipes and said, "Oh wow, this is so much easier than I thought it would be and it's so delicious!" And I know that won't be the reality for everyone, but it is for a ton of people. And I think that message is really easy: just try cooking, just give it a try, keep an open mind, and you never know where it could take you.
Do you have a favorite recipe?
Probably the Chana Masala. I think that's my favorite. Because when I was in college my friends and I went to this one coffee shop that also had amazing Pakistani food, and we were always charmed particularly by this Chana Masala. And I was always like, how do I make this? It seemed impossible to make something taste this good. I mean Chana Masala is incredible: it's just chickpeas in a spicy tomato sauce, but it is a bowl of magic. And it takes like, 20 minutes to make! It's so easy, but it's so, so good. All I did was put cumin seeds and some butter in here and now it tastes totally different. We added tomatoes, we let it cook a little while and it just changed. That's when cooking is at its best; it feels like you're at Hogwarts or something. You've done magic.
Chana Masala. Excerpted from Good and Cheap by Leanne Brown (Workman Publishing). Copyright © 2015. Photographs by Leanne Brown and Dan Lazin.
You clearly dove deep into the issue of food affordability and access for this cookbook. Are there other food policy issues that excite you?
I was definitely the policy nerd when I was at school, and I thought I would end up at a policy job afterwards, but I'm lucky that didn't happen because I think it would have sucked my soul out because it makes me so angry. I did that stuff when I was working back in Canada, but it's so upsetting, it's so hard, it's really for people who are made out of stronger stuff.
What's next for you? More recipes? Other approaches to food advocacy?
Yeah! So I think in time it would be cool to make another edition, maybe in a few years. But actually, I am starting a new book. I've hinted at the mental health part of cooking, so this book is going to be a little bit more from that perspective. I don't want to make a "Good and Cheap II," I think that would be disingenuous. But I want to continue to explore what keeps people from cooking, and I think so much of what I've heard in the conversations I've had is often deep fears about the reasons that we don't cook, that we don't take care of ourselves, that we don't feel worthy. It's so much of our own inner trauma. And so I want this next book to really be about how can we let ourselves cook, how can we all let ourselves live and enjoy our three meals a day? How can we all get closer to that goal of really enjoying our food? Because we so often get in our own way. It will probably be smaller essays and then recipes that attempt to solve or at least address specific problems, whether it's fear, or coming home late and not having time. Having that moment of, "I should order pizza," but then I feel defeated instead of the powerful human being that I am. Taking those moments for cooking and self-care.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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