Leanne Brown didn't set out to write a buzz-worthy cookbook for people who want fine-dining taste on a food stamp budget.
Because "Good and Cheap," a beautifully photographed e-book packed with low-cost, fuss-free recipes, actually began simply as a master's thesis for the 29-year-old NYU food studies program graduate.
But after Brown posted it online as a PDF it got attention on Reddit, the social networking and news website, then turned into a surprise hit, spawning a Kickstarter fundraising campaign to cover the cost of printing hardcover copies for the people who need them most.
Her approach to the cookbook — using the same kind of high-quality photography and innovative flavor combinations that go into cookbooks aimed at people with $6,000 ranges in their kitchens — is part of a new breed of campaigns to help people eat well on a tight budget. The goal is simple — make it attractive to cook from scratch, almost always the best and cheapest way to eat well without spending a lot.
Recipes in "Good and Cheap" are healthy and enticing. Think vibrant vegetable jambalaya and a fun section called simply "Things on Toast." Brown wrote the book partly because she wanted a thesis that could have a life outside academia. She also wanted to research whether she could eat the kind of food she likes to cook on a food stamp budget (around $4.43 a day).
"If you can cook there's so much you can do with limited ingredients," Brown said. "If you don't know how to cook, you'll feel pretty trapped."
Following the success of the PDF version of the book, Brown launched a Kickstarter campaign to pay for a print run with the goal of raising enough money to donate hard copies through organizations serving the low-income community. The campaign started with a goal of $10,000 and ended with more than $144,000.
Other programs aiming to help low-income families eat better by cooking more have taken similar approaches, hoping a gourmet touch can help sell the idea of saving money by getting in the kitchen.
"It's not about us lecturing people. We need to get people cooking," says Greg Silverman, a restaurateur, chef and director of national partnerships for the Share Our Strength No Kid Hungry Campaign.
For example, the National WIC Association, the education arm of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), produces a popular calendar each year that includes smart food shopping, preparation, cooking and other nutrition tips, as well as easy-to-make, low-cost recipes utilizing WIC foods — all professionally photographed.
"We want to make sure that the publication is attractive and of high quality, something that you would share with anybody regardless of income," says Cecilia Richardson, the association's nutrition program director.
Fact is, eating well requires cooking and shopping well, which is a challenge for people who may be working multiple low-paying jobs and living a bus ride or two away from access to healthy foods.
Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit organization aimed at ending childhood hunger, runs the Cooking Matters program teaching low-income families about food through such programs as grocery store tours led by community volunteers who help demystify food labels and identify healthy and affordable foods.
Share Our Strength also has a Cooking Matters free app, which includes low-cost recipes, shopping and cooking tips and more.
"We need more low-cost, healthy and delicious recipes out there that people have easy access to," says Silverman. "It's really exciting that (Brown's) book has taken off."
The hard copies of Brown's book will be available in September and sell for $20, but purchase options include buying additional copies to be donated to needy individuals for just a few dollars more. Brown also hopes to produce a Spanish edition and is looking for volunteers to help translate the book.