Photo courtesy of Workman
Leanne Brown is one busy woman on an admirable mission. The cookbook author, nutrition advocate and general do-gooder was just named one of the Forbes 2015 30 Under 30 picks in the Food & Drink category, primarily for her altruistic, educational and wholly useful cookbook, Good and Cheap. The book provides recipes and culinary inspiration to help those on a tight budget, like those in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as food stamps, which allots around $4 per day for basic food supplies. But here's where Brown's book is revolutionary: It's available for free download, accessible to all with an Internet connection, and has been downloaded more than 800,000 times. For those who wish to purchase a book, be it online or in stores, Workman, the publishing company, will donate a copy to a family or individual in need. (It's all win-win!)
We caught up with Brown to chat about food deserts, inspiration, outreach and how to eat well, cheaply, before her stop at Fountain Bookstore this Thursday, Sept. 3.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Richmond magazine: [Your cookbook] has a great concept. I think I heard about it on Tumblr, of all places, when it was first available for download and I remember seeing it and thinking it was a really interesting project that’s useful for a lot of people, not just those on SNAP. I know it began as a project for your master’s degree, but what exactly inspired you to choose this topic in particular?
Leanne Brown: You know, it’s sort of hard to explain because it’s a bunch of things coming together. For that thesis project for a master’s in food studies, there’s no set way that you have to do it, so I wanted to do something that would have a life beyond academia, because I knew I didn’t want to go on to PhD and be an academic; I wanted to do something that wouldn’t just be read by my mom and my thesis advisor and maybe a couple of my colleagues. Also, my background: I grew up in Canada and after I graduated with an arts degree, I worked in city politics for a few years and was really interested in food policy and wanted to go off and pursue that, so I did. But I’m really passionate about social justice. I’m extremely bothered by unfairness, so that’s always been in the back of my mind. And when I was studying food for a few years, I was coming to a new country that’s so similar to Canada in so many ways but so different in a few distinct ways: We don’t have a SNAP program or a food stamps program in Canada, so that, to me, is a really different situation in the landscape of food policy. And I love cooking. I would love for everyone to sort of know what a wonderful skill cooking is, how accessible cooking is, how easy it is. Not to teach everyone to cook and make everyone super cheffy, foodie types, but I think everyone should learn the basics because it can improve your life so much.
There’s this wonderful food movement and we talk about these things all the time. We have these long discussions about everything in the world of food — environmental problems, equity problems — and it always ends with going, ‘What are we gong to do?’ I feel like these discussions are so often led by the middle class, and people who don’t have money are getting left out of these discussions, you know, people who can’t really vote with their fork. So I wanted to do something around that. One day I was walking down the street with a group of friends and I was like, ‘Why don’t I just make a SNAP cookbook?’ and one was like, "Yeah, why don’t you just do that?" All I needed was her to say it and that kind of moved me forward to the point where I could do a slightly larger project like that.
RM: You mention in the book that you worked with low-income families; what exactly were you doing and how did that help to shape what wound up being the cookbook?
LB: Yeah! That was a really wonderful thing. I stumbled across this really wonderful volunteer opportunity, Cooking Matters, which is this wonderful national program run by the No Kid Hungry program out of D.C. I was an agent for this program and went to WIC [Women, Infants, and Children: the federal supplemental and nutrition education program], which gives food vouchers to pregnant women and new children. Basically I would come every week and I would convince people to go on a grocery store tour with me, and we would go through and the premise was how to get as much good food for your money, with a focus on health.
What I found out really quickly was we would start out in the fruits and vegetable section and talk about people’s issues, and the best way we would get people to open up was to talk about what are some delicious things you like to make out of these things. That would really start to get people excited and their eyes would light up when we’d really start to talk about real food. The thing about nutrition education is that sometimes it can be so focused on ‘Let’s make sure we don’t have salt’ and ‘Let’s make sure we don’t have all these bad things,’ so you’re not really talking about real food. I don’t care about not eating all these bad things, but I care about eating the good things. So we tried to focus on that and it was a wonderful experience for me. I did it for about a year and I worked with all kinds of families, and kids would come along, too, which is great because they’re so honest.
I got so much information out of that; there are so many things in the book that came directly out of those experiences, like how we would always stop by the dairy case and talk about yogurt, because it was so many people’s go-to snacks. But those little individual-serving yogurt things are usually A.) packed with sugar and B.) rip-offs in comparison to buying a large tub of plain yogurt, so I was always trying to convince people to buy a large tub of plain yogurt and flavor it with honey or vanilla or blueberries or whatever you have at home. There are a lot of really funny things in there that don’t really feel like they should belong in a cookbook — it’s just general, basic eating and snacking advice.
[These trips] kind of really shaped what the cookbook would become, and not just make it a bunch of recipes but a collection of stuff that I hoped would be helpful and reflect not only the difficulties of eating, but also the sort of joys of eating in a real way. You know, nobody lives like they eat in Martha Stewart Living every day. I wanted to create a bunch of things that were exciting and that could fit within people’s budgets, that could be really, truly flexible, and could show people the power of cooking. I wanted people to have a set of recipes so that they could walk into a grocery store and go, ‘Oh hey! These are the vegetables that are on sale and I’m confident that I can make something great out of them.’
RM: Well speaking of accessibility, Richmond and its surrounding areas unfortunately comprise one of the largest food deserts in the country—
LB: Oh, really?
RM: Yeah. So I wanted to know if you happen to have any recommendations for those who may be on SNAP or on a tight budget, but are pretty far from a lot of the fresh produce, like tofu or lentils, that you mention in the book.
LB: Yeah, that’s really tough. It’s one of the things I was so aware of [while writing]. You know, the cookbook is obviously one specific weapon in an arsenal of all kinds of things that need to be done to fight food insecurity and to deal with food deserts. But if people can’t get some of these things, I tried to make it so that something else will still work, and that most of the recipes will still work without some of the ingredients, or some of the recipes can be swapped. I also tried to create things that are very, very flexible, [using] things that are found at the corner store or things that can be stored for longer. I mean, my only advice is really just to try to buy stuff that can last longer. You know, frozen fruits and vegetables are not so bad if you can get your hands on them. A lot of them can still be really great quality, because especially fruit is picked at the height of its season before it’s frozen, and there are a lot of recipes in the book that don’t need to be fresh — lots of soups and rice and grain dishes, where vegetables can get a little bit mushy and it won’t be a big problem.
I guess it’s just thinking strategically, shopping on a weekly or bi-weekly basis and trying to plan things out a little bit more if you can’t get somewhere on a regular basis. It’s really a lame situation and obviously there’s a lot of work being done; there are a lot of good people working on this stuff and I hope we can find a better solution.
RM: Absolutely, and I think that’s great advice. I wanted to ask about the variety of the recipes: You’ve got everything from British bubble and squeak to curried butternut squash soup and chicken adobo, but then you’ve got some probably more familiar meals like roast chicken or baked beans. There’s quite a range; was this intentional? Why is it important that people within the SNAP or $4-per-day readership branch out when cooking?
LB: I think that it goes back to the joy of food. It’s so amazing we live in this time where there is so much — obviously except the exception is being made for people living in where you’re saying — but there really is an incredible variety of food available. What’s extraordinary is what you can do with one or two simple ingredients. You know, with one thing there are so many ways to approach it from different perspectives of different cuisine. And what I really wanted with the cookbook was I wanted to create things that were really flexible, but also that different people from all different backgrounds and situations would recognize themselves in. I wanted some of my single friends or students or a person with a disability who is living on their own for the first time to be able to recognize themselves and their tastes in that book, and I wanted people living in maybe more of a traditional family situation or with extended family, with eight or 10 people and everyone is kind of eating together, that they would also recognize some tricks and some foods that would appeal to them and work for them. And I think that variety is also what sort of keeps us going!
You can’t really live on $4 and not know how to cook at all. Most people know how to cook some basic things but they’re usually looking for some new ideas and new ways to use the stuff that they’re used to. Things get boring, things get uninspiring. I hear from a lot of people, ‘I’m a good cook but I’ve been doing the same rotation of stuff for a long time and it’s just great to get some new ideas.’ It doesn’t need to be difficult. Sometimes you just need that little spark of motivation.
RM: Absolutely! And like I said, it’s a great resource for everyone — not only people on SNAP.
LB: Yeah! Well it’s just about how good cooking is and that it’s good for absolutely anyone at any age and at any time. If you like to eat well, the best thing you can do is learn how to cook. And it doesn’t mean you have to learn how to cook and be the master of whipping perfect peaks in your cream or meringue; it’s really about just starting to learn what you like — that kind of cooking where it’s not so much worrying about the recipe says precisely but understanding, ‘All I’m doing is putting [in] some vegetables, which will cook within these eggs, and they’ll taste great at the end.’ That’s the kind of stuff that gives you confidence and makes you realize you’re really in control.
RM: Have you gotten a lot of positive or negative feedback from the communities you were trying to help?
LB: I basically get nothing but positive feedback but I think that’s because nobody’s going to write to me and be like, ‘You suck!’ I think I have a pretty biased set of feedback, but yeah, super, super positive. I hear from individuals all the time and I really like hearing from people who work in organizations. I’ve had people tell me they’ve been making some of the recipes and they really like them, and it’s fun for me to be able to give a tool, because there are so many organizations and people doing such amazing work, from healthcare stuff to schools and daycares and recreation centers and farmers markets and urban gardening. Obviously there are so many organizations, some of which I never thought would be interested in this stuff — veterans’ organizations — just a huge, huge variety and they’re all doing such great work. To be able to give them a tool that is like a positive gift for their clients, I feel so privileged to be able to do that.
Meet Leanne Brown at her 'Good and Cheap' book signing event on Thursday, Sept. 3 at Fountain Bookstore, 6:30 p.m., 1312 E. Cary St. While you can download a copy for free online, each copy of the book that's purchased online or in a book shop gets another copy donated to someone in need.