I was once oblivious to the hunger crisis in America and the world. It was an “us” and “them” problem. It wasn’t until a financial disaster hit my family hard that I learned first-hand what a crisis was. Suddenly I qualified for SNAP; I became “them.”
SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is the new name of the federal Food Stamp Program and provides nutrition assistance to millions of low-income individuals and families. The day my EBT (electronic benefits transfer) card arrived in the mail was emotional. It was my lifeline, as well as proof that I needed help. On the surface, the EBT card looks a lot like a regular debit card and it functions in a similar way. However, instead of withdrawing from your bank account it withdraws from predetermined funds established by the state, based on your application. Once the amount is gone, there is no more until the next monthly cycle.
The maximum amount for a family of two is just over $340 a month. It sounds like a lot, but when you break it down, it ends up being under $6 a day. Remember, this is the maximum. The average family on SNAP usually budgets for $5 a day.
For many families, myself included, being on SNAP was a fast and furious lesson in menu planning and food budgeting. I had always enjoyed having a well stocked pantry, but I soon began to understand the concept of staples and how important it was to use every part of the food I purchased.
When I was on SNAP I was also incredibly stressed out and depressed; the idea of food prep and cooking seemed overwhelming. I could shop and prepare a meal without the limitations of a budget, but suddenly by only having $5 a day to work with, I faltered into horrible food choices. I wanted quick. I wanted simple. Nutritional and organic food seemed like something out of my reach and for people who had better lives. So I purchased crap that was easy and cheap. And I wasn’t alone in this. According to the new Hunger in America study released by Feeding America, 79 percent of households surveyed reported purchasing the cheapest food available, even if they knew it wasn’t the healthiest option, in an effort to provide enough food for their household.
It would have been soul lifting if I had the amazing tool created by Leanne Brown: a cookbook made available to the masses (for free!) perfectly titled, Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day.
Brown decided to create a cookbook full of budget-friendly recipes while she worked on her master’s in food studies at NYU. A native of Canada, Brown was disturbed when she observed how many SNAP families ate poorly. She told Molly Roberts of NPR, “It really bothered me, the 47 million people on food stamps — and that’s a big chunk of the population — don’t have the same choices everyone else does.”
Brown’s goal was to create recipes that fell within a $4 a day budget. She put Good and Cheap together as a visually stunning digital cookbook. When I hear of free downloadable PDFs I imagine something drab and dreary. However, this photo lush book is beautiful and exciting to flip through, even as a PDF.
While it has been a few years since my family has needed to depend on SNAP benefits, I was curious to try out many of the recipes in Good and Cheap. I wanted to see first-hand how easy to follow the recipes were to shop for and prepare, and how they tasted. I was also curious if my son would enjoy any of the recipes.
My Family’s Good and Cheap Challenge
I picked out recipes for three days of meals. My son was a wild card with this, so I prepared meals for two and shared with my mom. Brown’s cost estimates are in parenthesis.
Day 1: banana pancakes ($2.80), tomato scrambled eggs ($3.60), corn soup ($5.00)
Day 2: banana pancake leftovers, corn soup leftovers, and vegetable quiche ($6)
Day 3: banana pancake leftovers, vegetable quiche leftovers, and corn meal veggies ($2.50)
Brown’s estimates totaled: $19.90
My actual cost: $40.17 ($6.70/day per person)
The difference in cost was alarming to me until I realized the costs in Brown’s book factor in staples across all of the recipes. For example, I needed to buy vanilla extract for one of the recipes so that cost was absorbed within my 3-day budget. However, there are several recipes within the book that call for vanilla, so if I were to shop later for those recipes I would not need to add in the cost of the vanilla purchase.
Verdict: I think Brown truly managed to create a cost effective cookbook.
The Ease of Shopping:
All of the ingredients listed for the recipes I selected were easy to find at my local grocery store. As I was shopping, I realized I was sticking to the “healthy sections” of the market — the outer aisles. With the exception of the pantry staples I needed to purchase (vanilla, brown sugar, etc.) all of the items were produce or dairy.
(Note: there are few meat dishes in Good and Cheap, and that didn’t bother me as meat is incredibly expensive. The recipes Brown does include for meat work for many varieties of protein.)
Since the recipes are fluid with ingredients, you can adjust and adapt as the seasons change. You won’t find something that says you MUST use a specific kind of vegetable or fruit; instead Brown makes suggestions and reminds you to shop for in-season produce to save money.
Verdict: Easy to shop for and easy to adapt to tastes and within seasons.
Making the Food:
My schedule can be hectic. Finding time to create a home-cooked meal is sometimes a luxury and making an elaborate meal is reserved for holidays. This was true also when my family was on SNAP benefits.
I will confess that as I was buying the ingredients to make banana pancakes from scratch, I did wistfully look over at the “just add water” box mixes with envy. The idea of so many steps vs. one step felt daunting.
That being said, these recipes are not difficult to do, but they did take longer than I expected. A more practiced home cook may have better results, but I was often frustrated by the time. The good news is every recipe yielded enough for leftovers.
Verdict: More time consuming, but manageable.
I knew as I was making the food that it would be tasty. As much as I grumbled about the time involved in preparing it, there IS something to be said about knowing exactly what is going into a meal.
Our favorite was the corn soup which took a REALLY LONG time to make. Part of this is because I wanted to make stock from the corn husks, something I had never heard of before reading Good and Cheap. If I had not made my own stock it would have taken less time but cost twice as much. Using fresh corn made this soup feel like a special summer meal and it made the house smell amazing.
Every recipe uses a good bit of butter and as someone who keeps a food journal, that really stood out. I also have eaten a LOT of whole eggs over the last three days when I typically eat egg whites. Even taking that into consideration, the food is still significantly healthier than the food I prepared and ate when I was on SNAP.
Verdict: Nom, nom, nom!
Leanne Brown’s book has a lot of people really excited. Earlier this year, she decided to create print copies of Good and Cheap for people who didn’t have access to computers. Her Kickstarter campaign was established as a buy one, get one. When the Kickstarter closed, she had raised nearly $145,000 from over 5,000 backers, far surpassing her $10,000 goal. The Plate estimates it’s “enough to fund 6,000 free copies and another 25,000 that nonprofits can buy at a super-discounted $4.” They note that 450 nonprofits have asked for the book.
In the introduction of Good and Cheap, Brown writes:
“Learning to cook has a powerfully positive effect. My hope is that this book will empower people to become better, more conscious cooks, able to conjure deliciousness in any kitchen, anytime, anywhere. Good cooking alone can’t solve hunger in America, but it can make life happier — and that is worth every effort.”
Being on SNAP benefits is not something any family aspires to. It’s a support system families work to bounce out of as quickly as they can. Within my gratitude for the assistance, I still remember hanging my head and feeling like there was no easy way to navigate the budget. There certainly wasn’t someone reaching out and saying you deserve to eat well.
Good and Cheap is a triumph, as it carries a message for families on SNAP: You matter. That message goes a long way in propelling people towards success. That’s important because ultimately every family on SNAP is a success story just waiting to happen.
If you want to buy a hardcopy of the cookbook or help donate the cookbook to those in need, you can easily do that on Leanne’s website (there are also details for how nonprofits can obtain copies).
More on Babble:
What I learned after taking a homeless woman grocery shopping
Almost homeless: My family’s journey through financial hell and back
7 things my son learned from a friendship with someone less fortunate
10 incredibly cheap health foods for families on a budget
6 reasons why giving back is good for you