Can you eat on $4 a day?
If you dined out for lunch or picked up a specialty coffee drink this morning, you’re likely already over the daily allotment for the more than 46 million Americans living on food stamps. Those enrolled in the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, receive on average $125.35 a person each month, which works out to be about $4 per person a day. (Many living on food stamps do have an income to further supplement the cost of food, but it’s not much: A family of four must make less than $31,525 to be SNAP-eligible.)
Such a small budget can make healthy eating a challenge, leading many low-income shoppers to look past expensive, fresh ingredients and pick up the cheaper, processed foods. That’s what Leanne Brown wanted to change when she created the cookbook, “Good and Cheap: Eat Well On Four Dollars A Day.”
The free digital meal guide, which features recipes such as Cauliflower Cheese and Filipino Chicken Adobo, has been downloaded more than 900,000 times and more than 70,000 hardcover copies have been sold at a discount price for those in need. Brown says the very budget-friendly cookbook, which began as her thesis project while earning her Master’s degree in food studies at New York University, relies on affordable and easy-to-find items.
“Things like pulled pork, a really tougher piece of meat that’s less expensive — usually those long-cooking pieces are cheaper — you put that in the oven overnight with a few spices and some salt and pepper, you wake up the next more and it smells incredible…,” Brown told MetroFocus Host Rafael Pi Roman.
Through her research, Brown found plenty of recipes for low-income budgets but felt they weren’t as appealing as cookbooks that call for more expensive ingredients.
“Absolutely, there are a lot of recipes that are available online and definitely the government has an incredible database but what I felt was missing was something that really looked beautiful and enticing and was sort of as attractive as so many of the gorgeous cookbooks that are out there in the stores,” she said. “I wanted to create something that you would look at and go, ‘I want to make that,’ and show that cheap food can be just as delicious and just as beautiful as anything else.”
And Brown says the book is more than just tasty, nutritious recipes: “Good and Cheap” discusses how to maximize ingredients and use economical cooking methods, and includes tips for shopping, setting up a basic pantry and re-purposing leftovers.
“What I hope this book shows that is if you can cook, and cooking is not hard, then there’s so much you can do because the cost of food, sort of basic food at the grocery store is actually not that high, it’s really our skill in putting it together that makes it worth so much,” she said.
For every cookbook sold, Brown said one copy will be donated to a low-income household.
“Good and Cheap” recipes:
This is a classic side dish in Great Britain: creamy, cheesy sauce over cauliflower, baked in the oven until the edges get crunchy and bubbly. It’s like a healthier and more flavorful version of macaroni and cheese. Try substituting broccoli or cooked winter squash for the cauliflower—everyone will love it.
2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
1 head cauliflower, cut into bite-size pieces
1 tablespoon butter, plus more for the baking dish
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon chile flakes
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups milk
6 ounces sharp Cheddar cheese, grated pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
4 scallions, finely chopped
zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
Breadcrumbs (page 158 in the cookbook)
Sprinkling of finely chopped fresh basil
1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add the salt and the cauliflower, then leave it for 4 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, butter a baking dish large enough to comfortably accommodate all the cauliflower. I usually use a pie dish. Drain the cauliflower and add it to the dish.
4. Melt the butter in a medium-size saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic, chile flakes, and bay leaf and cook for about 1 minute. Add the flour and stir quickly. The flour-butter mixture is called a roux. You want the roux to get just a little brown—this will probably take another minute. Slowly add the milk to the pot, stirring all the while to incorporate the roux and make a creamy sauce.
5. Continue cooking the sauce, stirring occasionally, until it just comes to a boil, about 5 to 7 minutes. Once a couple of bubbles appear, turn off the heat and stir the cheese into the sauce. Include any additions at this point (except breadcrumbs). Taste the sauce and add salt and pepper as needed. Remove the bay leaf. The sauce should be creamy, smooth, and savory.
6. Pour the sauce over the cauliflower, sprinkling with breadcrumbs if desired. Place the dish in the oven and bake until the top is brown and bubbly, about 40 minutes.
Filipino Chicken Adobo
This ultra-adaptable recipe comes to us care of Tony Pangilinan, who grew up on food stamps after his family immigrated from the Philippines “with nothing but four suitcases and a lot of dreams.” After several decades of struggling to achieve those dreams, Tony can now help support family members who remain in poverty in the Philippines. Despite their hard circumstances, he notes that his relatives “still feel blessed.” Filipino adobo—very different from Spanish adobo—is basically anything cooked in vinegar, soy sauce, and garlic. Although this version is chicken, you can use any meat or vegetables you like. It’s a brilliant dish that turns basic staples into deliciousness. Because it’s vinegar-based, it also keeps well in the fridge!
¾ cup rice vinegar or white vinegar
¼ cup soy sauce
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ tsp black pepper
2 bay leaves
8 chicken thighs, fat trimmed
2 tbsp vegetable oil
¾ cup water
2 medium potatoes, chopped
4 medium carrots, sliced
2 cups white rice salt
2 tsp cornstarch
ginger root, grated
1½ lb pork shoulder or butt, cubed, instead of chicken
1 can coconut milk instead of water chicken schmaltz instead of vegetable oil
1. In a large, non-aluminum pan, stir together the vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, pepper, and bay leaves. Add the chicken, coating each piece thoroughly. Cover and let marinate for at least 30 minutes, but overnight is great.
2. Pull the chicken out of the marinade and pat each piece dry.
3. Pour the oil into a large pot on medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add enough chicken to fill the bottom of the pot. Let it cook for a few minutes, until one side of the chicken is browned, then flip it over. When the first batch of chicken is done, remove it from the pot and repeat with the remainder.
4. After all the chicken is browned, put it back in the pot along with the marinade, water, potatoes, and carrots. Turn the heat up until the liquid comes to a boil, then reduce to low heat and simmer for 45 minutes, or until the meat near the bone is no longer pink and the carrots and potatoes are cooked through.
5. About 20 minutes before the adobo is ready, pour the rice into a medium pot with 4 cups of water. Add two pinches of salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat with the lid off. Turn the heat down and cover with a lid that is slightly askew to let the steam escape. Cook about 20 minutes, until the water is all gone.
6. Remove the bay leaves from the adobo. In a small bowl, mix the cornstarch with a tablespoon of water, then stir it into the sauce. Let the sauce boil and thicken until the chicken and vegetables are well glazed. Serve over the rice.
Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.