How to Eat Well on $4 a Day

Leann Brown and Good and Cheap cookbook.
Good and Cheap

What started as a master's project has become Leanne Brown's life work — and this success is just the start of it. (Photo courtesy Leanne Brown)

In the summer of 2014, Leanne Brown started a Kickstarter campaign for her book "Good and Cheap," a cookbook to help people eat healthy on $4 a day — the amount the average person on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan, or SNAP, receives a day. The book became her project for her master's in Food Studies at New York University, and she offered it as a free PDF for anyone who wanted to download it. Knowing that many people who could benefit from the cookbook couldn't afford a device to download it on, she turned to Kickstarter. That's when I first heard about her impressive work and how the "Good and Cheap" cookbook was resonating with all types of cooks.

Brown hoped to raise $10,000 to print physical copies of the book. For every copy purchased, another copy was donated to someone in need. The campaign was overwhelmingly successful. Brown surpassed her original goal and ended up raising $144,681, and tens of thousands of cookbooks ended up in the hands those who needed the information the most.

But that's not the end of the story. The cookbook continues to sell and a Spanish translation has just been published. I spoke with Brown to find out what's happened since the Kickstarter campaign and if she's planning any other books.

Giving away the books

"The whole ethos of the book is that this should be free to anyone it can be useful for. Food is so important, and you need to spend money on that. You shouldn't be paying for a cookbook," said Brown.

About 40,000 books were printed as the result of the campaign. Of those, 7,000 went directly to backers and 9,000 more were given away. The remaining 24,000 books were sold at cost ($4 a book) to various nonprofits that were able to distribute the books to those who needed them.

After her Kickstarter campaign — which ended up being the most successful cookbook campaign on the crowdfunding site — she heard from several publishers who were interested in the project. The one that was the right fit was Workman Publishing Co.

"Workman totally got the project," said Brown "They are really fantastic."

After the print run, half of the books go to stores to be purchased by consumers and half become giveaway copies. (The giveaways don't have the blue circle on the cover that says "you buy we give.")

The book's reception

Chana masala
Chana Masala is one of the recipes in Brown's book. (Photo: Leanne Brown)

When the PDF version of the book was first offered for free on Brown's website, not much happened — until someone posted information about it on Reddit.

"I had hundreds of emails from my website in one day. It had become really popular, really fast. A huge number of people were saying it was really wonderful," Brown said. On that day, 50,000 people downloaded the book and crashed her site.

After the book was published, she started hearing the stories of people who were using it. One young adult wrote and told her he was the first person in his family to go to college. He had to reduce his work hours down to be able to attend college, and he qualified for food stamps. He thought he would just be eating ramen noodles — until he found her recipes.

Brown heard from people who shared stories of being kids in a struggling family who wished their parents or grandparents had a resource like this. She also heard form people who said they'd never eaten vegetables before, but her recipes helped them realize that zucchini and tomatoes are good.

One woman wrote to her, excited to discover the book. After 10 years of a disability that required a caretaker who cooked for her, the woman was about to move out on her own. She was doubly scared: She was going to be independent for the first time, plus she didn't know how to cook. Brown talked to her about which recipe to try first, and the two decided on Mexican Street Corn, a recipe everyone loves. The woman told Brown that when the dish came out of the oven and she tasted it, she started to cry. It was delicious and she was so relieved because that's when she knew she was going to be able to take care of herself.

"Good and Cheap," with recipes like Mexican Street Corn or Chana Masala (pictured above) is making a difference in people's lives, and after hearing so many stories, Brown realized something.

"People carry such heaviness around food. It can be such a burden instead of what it should be — this wonderful thing we get to have every day," she said. That thought gave her another idea.

What's next for Brown

Leanne Brown
Brown also speaks and leads workshops. (Photo: Jordan Matter)

The book has given Brown the opportunity to travel, speak and do workshops. She's just coming off a six-month maternity leave, and "Good and Cheap" still takes up a lot of her time. There are currently 408,915 copies of "Good and Cheap" (both donated and sold) in print along with another 20,000 copies of the new Spanish version, "Bueno y Barato." Brown says she has another book she needs to write.

"I've learned so much from 'Good and Cheap' and talking with so many people. There are so many issues with cooking and eating, and it comes down to the way we think about things. There's so much psychologically — so much guilt around food. And, at the same time there is so much more that keeps people from eating the way they deserve to and getting joy out of their food every day," she said. "The next book's going to be about letting ourselves eat well."

She's in the early stages with this next book, but she knows she wants to emphasize that cooking can be joyful and something that can be used for real self care.

"Everyone should eat well. Everyone deserves to eat well. I'm basically an ambassador for letting yourself eat good food no matter how much money you have," said Brown.

The PDF version of "Good and Cheap" is still available to download for free in both English and Spanish, or you can buy one and set that free book donation in motion! To see Brown in action making some of the food from the book, check out this video of her on CTV News.