Leanne Brown’s cookbook, Good and Cheap, has garnered glowing national attention since its massively successful Kickstarter campaign in 2014. Good and Cheap is a cookbook that works within tight budgets and the SNAP/food stamps program; it employs the “buy one, give one” model and promises a free book or subsidized books to people in need through a national system of nonprofits. The PDF is available for free on leannebrown.com and has been downloaded more then 900,000 times. The Urban Democracy Lab spoke with Leanne to discuss her thoughts on food justice, SNAP, and the future of Good and Cheap:
When did your interest in nutritional justice and SNAP/food stamps start? How did you become interested in this instructive version of nutritional activism?
LB: I’ve always been interested in food and policy. I grew up in Canada in Edmonton, Alberta, and I went to school there for my first degree, an arts degree, and I started working in city politics. I was an assistant to the counselor which means that I basically ended up doing a little bit of everything and running around doing whatever needed to be done at any given time. Every now and then issues with food policy and justice would come up and they were so interesting and I wanted to dig into them deeper, but I didn’t have the chance because you had to do whatever thing people were freaking out about at the moment. After a few years I knew I had to pursue something around food and policy, but I didn’t know how to do that exactly. I was living in Edmonton, Alberta, and there was no specific way to make this career happen, but I knew I wanted to do it. I ended up finding New York University’s food studies program and I knew that was what I wanted to be doing. I was lucky enough to get into the program and I had an absolute love of cooking. That had been something I had been doing for a long time, and I had a desire to share the empowering aspects of cooking with as many people as possible. At the same time, I was really ready to be molded and influenced by whatever I was learning. Moving from Canada to the U.S., SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) really stands out as a big difference between our two nations. We don’t have a SNAP program in Canada; we have social assistance for people who are working and have lower incomes and for people who have needs that need to be addressed, but no specific food program. So it fascinated me and it became something I was increasingly interested in and bothered by.
Many have criticized the SNAP program for failing to encourage healthy eating, what changes do you think need to be made in this regard?
LB: Since 2008 it has been renamed the SNAP program rather than the food stamps program. And I think there’s been a lot of emphasis on making healthy eating choices. It’s not restricted to only healthy food, which I think is a good thing. SNAP is an emergency program that is for people who are going through a difficult time whether it’s just for a few months or a longer term. I think it is so important for people to be able to choose food that they love rather than having it restricted by sometimes arbitrary government ideas of what is most nutritious, which is often not particularly culturally sensitive. So I think it’s a good thing it isn’t restrictive in that way and there’s been more focus on doing things like trying to eat more fruits and vegetables. I am a pretty stubborn person and I don’t want someone telling me what to do. I want to make healthier choices, but in my own way and on my own time. So I think it’s a good thing that they’re more respectful and let people make their own decisions.
Since Good and Cheap really works with SNAP, what should the government do to support or incorporate projects like yours?
LB: [Laughs] Well I don’t know about that, but I have had a lot of interest from nonprofits, WIC programs, and people who have worked with these government programs who are already doing great work either teaching cooking classes or trying to teach nutrition classes for people who say “I want to eat healthier but it seems like it is so hard to do when you have a restrictive budget.” I think that where my book can be helpful is to show that there’s still so much that you can eat, there’s so much variety available and you can eat all kinds of healthy foods even for very little. But you have to be able to cook! You need to understand how you get dried beans to become cooked beans or understand that once you know how to cook rice, you can cook oats, quinoa, barley and farro. It’s simple stuff like that, but sometimes people need to be shown that because not everyone grew up in a household where cooking was normal or even seen at all. It’s not really from schools; it’s not really from anywhere else so you need to learn it at some point. I’m thrilled by how the cookbook has become useful for all kinds of people and that it’s really being embraced as a tool to enhance the wonderful programs that people all across the country are doing. Every city and every region is really different and has different issues that they’re tackling whether it’s really bad food access or whether it’s a rural community where people have to drive a really long way to get food. The nonprofits that we have worked with are really addressing those issues at a community level. I’m shocked and amazed at how much people are embracing the book as a useful tool in their arsenal of food justice work.
A recent study by Harvard Public Health shows that the nutritional gap between higher and lower socioeconomic groups has doubled from 2000 to 2010, where does food justice fall in the movement for economic justice?
LB: I think food shouldn’t be something that causes fear and pain. I think food should be something that you look forward to in the day and I think it helps you through the rest of life, which is extremely difficult. I think food and economic justice are massively tied together because for most people in modern America you can’t live off the land so food mobility is directly tied to how much money you have. You’re going to have to access the economic system in order to eat properly. As a result I think it is completely intertwined. Good and Cheap is a strategy guide for eating well with very little money and also a guide for the unsexy parts of cooking which are shopping, knowing what to buy and when, knowing what to have in your pantry so you can have food on the table, and knowing how to buy things so you don’t end up just using half of it. So a lot of it is budgeting or what is often called financial literacy. Budgeting at that level has a lot of risk because there is so much less room for error and it is a difficult problem to solve, but there are ways to do it. What we’re up against is this myth that it is not possible to eat well on a budget and I think sometime people believe that because it is what they’re told. Whether you’re told that directly or through the messages you receive in the grocery store, you’re told cheap food is unhealthy food and you come to believe this even though it isn’t true. When you’re told that chia pods, kale chips, and green juices, which are expensive, are the only way to be healthy, you think, “Should I even try?” And when you think about how vulnerable you can be if you have just lost a job and you’re desperately looking for work, you don’t always have the creativity and the drive to solve these other problems as well. So it can be easy to fall back on not cooking as much. You’re reaching people at a time when life is really difficult so I think it’s really up to all of us, and Good and Cheap is a small part of this, to show concrete, practical ways to deal with this.
What do you think the overarching goals of food justice are today and how should they be implemented?
LB: We need to shift policy, we need government action, and we need to say as a society that we really care about food. We need to recognize that food is a right that every person deserves and we need policies that match that belief. The food stamps program in the 70s was so effective, but the problem is that it has been underfunded and cut down over the years. I’ve never talked to anyone who has used the program or is currently using the program, who didn’t say it absolutely saved them or helped them enormously. But it could be so much more powerful if it was better funded so people really didn’t have to worry about food and could focus on other aspects of life. Every single person deserves to have access to food, be able to eat well, and eat the food that they want, but we also have to deal with the fact that food in its current model is being grown in an unsustainable way. I really believe in high level change, but as the same time I am a really impatient person and the reason I made Good and Cheap was because it was something I could do right now. While I think we all should be working on these long-term changes that address the root of these issues, that doesn’t mean we can’t try to do things right now. I always encourage anyone who has an idea or a project to just try doing it. I never expected that through Good and Cheap, I would see people that were really touched by it and were able to find hope in it or that it changed their lives in some way or another. It’s been useful for over 900 different nonprofits at this point, which is just amazing. I really want to encourage people to do those small things like volunteer at a food pantry, but at the same time be pushing at these systemic problems. We can’t just do one; we have to do both.
What is your next step with Good and Cheap or your next food justice project?
LB: People tell me stories all the time about growing up with hunger in their lives, how food has meant something to them, or the shame and fear of talking about their time on food stamps. I want to tell those stories because when I share them when I’m out on the road, they’re incredibly powerful and touching. I’m still figuring out how to do that whether it’s through a blog, a YouTube series, or through a book. There’s so much stigma around food stamps and I think the way to challenge that is to share the millions of stories that do not fit the stereotype that so many people have in their minds. I also want to work with kids a little more because there are so many kids in lower income households who are dying to help around the house and if they were empowered to cook, go shopping, and know how to put a few things together I think it would make a great deal of difference in their own lives.
Thank you, Leanne, for taking the time to talk with me and good luck on the rest of your book tour! You can buy the book or download the PDF at leannebrown.com, follow Leanne on Facebook at eatgoodandcheap, or on Twitter @leelb