Tell us a bit about your background and how you got started in the world of food. I grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. I have enjoyed cooking and food for as long as I can remember, but for the longest time I thought the only way to work with food was to become a chef or work in a restaurant, and I knew I didn’t want that. After I graduated from University I went to work as an assistant to a City Councillor – there I learned about food policy issues like the preservation of farmland and local food systems and became enamored with the topic. I didn’t think I could make a career in this area, but I wanted to try. I found out about the NYU Food Studies Masters Program and it sounded like exactly what I was looking for. I applied and was lucky enough to be accepted. My partner and I moved to New York about 4 ½ years ago and I wanted to immerse myself in the world of food and see where it would lead. I’m so glad it’s lead me here! It’s way more than I ever dreamed I’d get to do.
Have you always been focused on affordable eating? What is it about this topic that really compels you? Nope, and honestly I still wouldn’t say that is my focus. My mission is to get people to embrace cooking as part of their lives. It is such a powerful force for joy. If you can eat well it makes the rest of life (the hard parts) that much more bearable and I want that for everyone.
But affordability is a really important barrier that keeps many people from cooking. It’s so multifaceted, though. Many people don’t have enough money to buy the foods they want. Often the places that sell food are too far away or extremely low quality, and that presents another cost and time barrier. Not to mention that people who may not have much money also may have food allergies or conditions that make it more complex to eat. There is also the powerful prevailing myth that healthy foods are expensive, and that myth is so powerful that it can keep people from even trying. And it’s totally understandable! Why would you try to eat good, healthy food if you are living on $4/day if everyone seems to be telling you it’s impossible.
What exactly is the foodstamp diet? And do you believe it’s realistic for most Americans? Well there is no such thing as the foodstamp diet. But it does represent a budget range. The average allotment that a person has (and this varies from state to state, based on family situation, dependents, and the jobs people have) is $4/day. So about $30/week.
No, I do not think it’s nearly enough. It’s fantastic that the program exists, and I know so many families across the country are so thankful for it. It is absolutely life-saving and there are so many stories of how well it has worked in the lives of so many. But it is not much and it is not an easy amount to budget for and try to keep yourself full, let alone healthy.
I wrote Good and Cheap not to say that $4/day is enough, but because regardless of whether it’s enough, it’s the reality for millions of Americans. I wanted to share the good news that if you can cook you can really make the most of what you have! It’s what you can do right now. It doesn’t mean we stop fighting for more. Good and Cheap will not be able to help everyone, but it can be of use to some and that is totally worth it.
What made you decide to write your book, Good and Cheap? I was angry that so many people are living with such small budgets. Coming from Canada I was not familiar with the SNAP/Foodstamps program (we don’t have that in Canada). I was blown away that between 44-46 million Americans were living on so little. I mean, the whole population of Canada is 35 million! It is a huge problem that highlights fundamental inequalities in society. It’s unfair for a million reasons that I won’t get into here. It’s not talked about enough, and often when it’s covered in the media the story ends up being about politics or about someone doing the SNAP challenge rather than about the real stories of people living on SNAP from day to day. People are taught not to talk about it, that they should be ashamed and that it’s somehow their fault. But that is all total garbage and it makes me furious that people are living with that kind of pain in addition to the pain of hunger. People’s stories are so important and need to be told.
By the end of my master’s program I felt bogged down in the difficulty of making real change. I felt kind of powerless and I wanted to do something to be of service. Cooking is what I’m best at, and I wanted to make a statement that everyone deserves to eat good food every day. I wanted to show that inexpensive food can be just as beautiful and appealing as more fancy stuff. Luckily we are given free reign to do whatever we want for our final thesis/capstone projects and so I decided to make a cookbook focused on meeting the needs of people on a SNAP budget.
Wow! You give away PDFs of your book for free! Why? Yes. Well it follows naturally from the project. If you have $30/week for food you can’t afford a cookbook! I wanted there to be no barriers for people to get the information (You still have to find it online and have internet obviously). And I didn’t really care if people who could afford to pay would still get it for free. They can be my agents helping to spread the word! Making it free also meant that non-profits can use it in their programs to support their work with low income families. I wanted to the book to be a tool, and making it free just made sense. Since I released it in April of 2014 things have changed. It became a Kickstarter project to print the books with a buy-one give-one promise. Then the 2nd edition was published by Workman Publishing and for every copy sold we donate one to organizations across the country. But the pdf is still free on my website. It means people can take a look and see if they like it, and then choose to buy the book and support someone else if they want to. I have been blown away by the generosity and openness of people who have supported Good and Cheap! Hunger and inequality bothers everyone and people jump at the chance to contribute when given the opportunity. It’s exciting to get to help even in a small way.
What’s your favorite tip (or tips) to help make homemade food more affordable? Cook. Homemade food is affordable, much more so than eating out or frozen meals. But you have to know what the good deals are. Start to build up a pantry of staple items like grains, beans, canned tomatoes, and spices and then supplement them week to week with seasonal produce. In general your meals will be made of something inexpensive and basic, like rice, and then you add small amounts of other delicious foods to make it interesting. For example, jambalaya is basically a big pot of rice with stuff in it! Make sure you always have eggs and any other inexpensive, filling foods that you can have on the table quickly and you know you can do a lot with. If you buy foods in their most raw state (flour instead of pancake mix, bunches of spinach instead of bags of pre-washed) and prepare it simply, it will be inexpensive and delicious! Cooking doesn’t have to mean spending a lot of time or making complicated dishes. It’s about finding the confidence to throw what you have together and appreciating that. And nobody knows you as well as you know you! When you cook for yourself at home you can make it taste the way you want! If you like extra hot sauce, go for it! If you think peanuts should be in every salad, you can do it!
We noticed that your site includes a list of your favorite bargain kitchen tools. What one (or two) item(s) do you think every new home cook MUST have and why? Since it’s only one or two… you have to have a good knife and cutting board. Those are essential. Beyond that as you add more items from the list you will open up more possibilities for yourself! My personal favorite item is the microplane which I use almost every time I cook.
What are some of your favorite foods and why? This is a cruel question for a food person. I have so many. Last month I was obsessed with gochujang paste and this month I have been putting honey in and on everything. But the slightly embarrassing truth is I will never get tired of pizza.
I love homemade pizza, I love it in cooler months in the house and in the summer if you can make it on the grill…well! It’s a great place to try a new vegetable since everything is great on pizza and if you don’t like it that much, well how bad could it be? It’s still pizza! It’s also a great way to use up random leftovers and makes a great family tradition!
I like my pizza with a thin crust, and light on the toppings. I know it sounds crazy, but the worst and easiest mistake to make with pizza is loading it down with too much cheese. It seems like it will be good, but you end up with a soggy crust and it’s just not as balanced. If you use less cheese you get the flavor without the soggy, overly rich, gloppy side effects of too much cheese.
Can you share a couple stories that you’ve heard from your community about how your project has helped them and their families? Well I love hearing from the non-profits I work with. There are people giving cooking classes at community centers, libraries, health care offices, WIC centers, schools, farmers markets. Food pantries are giving them out to their clients when they come to do pick-up. Others have run contests! It’s so breathtaking to see how powerful the book has been in the hands of all these community leaders. They’ve made it a zillion times better than I ever could have on my own!
The Philadelphia Free Library has been using Good and Cheap in their ESL classes. One week they spend in the kitchen in their “culinary literacy center” (I know! How cool is that!) making and reading recipes from Good and Cheap. Cookbooks can be such a great place to learn language. The words are fairly simple and technical—and we all love learning those food words!
It’s so hard to choose, but probably the story that has touched me the most and really stuck with me is the story of Colleen (I’m changing her name so she’s anonymous). Colleen wrote to me to say that she had just moved out on her own after 10 years of living with a caretaker. She said, “I’m physically disabled and I haven’t cooked for myself in 10 years and I’m terrified I won’t be able to do it.” Colleen also lived off of her disability stipend, so money was very tight in addition to mobility being tough. But she said that she had found Good and Cheap and was feeling hopeful about it. I encouraged her to try something. She said she would report back. The next day she wrote to say she had tried the Mexican Street Corn — it’s a really simple recipe, but so yummy—and it was so delicious that she cried. She said she was crying not just because how good it tasted, but because it proved that she could do it and everything was going to be okay. She also said she was so excited to make oatmeal tomorrow, which is the first time anyone has ever said that (ha!). She was carrying so much fear with her, and being able to let go and trust that she could make good food was a huge relief. She could now focus on the rest of life! I relate to Colleen so much and I think so many people can. We hold a lot of fear and worry about food and if we can let go of that and trust ourselves it can make life so much more joyful!
If you were to really splurge, what’s your favorite meal? I love fresh fish. Grilled simply and thrown in a taco with some fresh veggies or avocado, or with herbs and butter. Mmmmmm.
How important do you think meal planning is to a family trying to eat well on a budget? It’s definitely important! It’s really another form of budgeting. Get a sense of how much you have to spend on each meal and build some rules for yourself. Go for a big shop and then follow the plan. Flexible recipes are the best and most useful for planning on a restricted budget. You want to be able to walk into a grocery store, see the produce that is on sale and seasonal and be confident that you can work it into the meals you have planned. You don’t want to be so strict with your meal plan that you can’t take advantage of good deals or follow your taste!
What’s next for you? I’m working on another book, but it’s still in the very early stages. That’s all I’ll say about that for now. And beyond that I’m traveling and speaking when I’m invited and generally doing what I can to spread the word!