We at BYSU have talked in the past about some of the stupid beliefs around eating healthy and on a budget. The national conversation has marginally evolved through a good education effort, but the fact remains that there are plenty of people who chastise poor people for eating badly, and especially for feeding their kids badly. They’re declining to eat healthy food and becoming obese, they aren’t feeding their kids enough vegetables, they’re not paying for school lunches and expect the rest of us to cough up for it (what kind of sicko thinks people should be allowed to eat when they have no money??). This kind of “healthy eating” talk crosses the line from well-meaning advice to uninformed judgment.
The truth is, for many people, it’s hard as hell to buy, prepare, and eat wholesome food. Food stamps don’t provide nearly as much as some think, and making food that’s as tasty as a bag of Cheetos takes time and a base of skills. Enter Leanne Brown’s Good and Cheap, a cookbook written with a SNAP budget in mind. Each recipe was cost-tested in New York, and the supposed price per recipe and serving is listed. But education is only part of the problem. While teaching people how to cook with their small food budget is a great thing, not everyone has the time or access to cook at all.
Food Stamps Aren’t Enough
It goes without saying that food stamps, welfare, and unemployment benefits have been subject to a ridiculous level of unfair scrutiny. Best encapsulated in Ronald Reagan’s rhetorical device of a fictional woman exploiting the social safety net, there is wide-spread suspicion of everyone who makes use of these services. There’s a popular image of people (often stereotyped as black) sitting around at home and eating potato chips and drinking beer on the taxpayers’ dime, cause, hey, wouldn’t that be JUST LIKE the American government to go above and beyond to make poor people overly comfortable?
Yeah, not really. In addition to the fact that multinational corporations benefit more from US wars, subsidy, and tax breaks than any number of welfare cases, the amount of assistance people actually get from these programs is not common knowledge. There is in fact an awful lot of throwing around of misleading numbers to reinforce the “drain on society” image, threatening the already-deficient level of assistance people are getting.
In fiscal year 2011, approximately 83 percent of SNAP households lived in poverty; 43 percent of SNAP households had gross income less than or equal to half of the poverty guideline.
-USDA report on SNAP recipients
Food stamps are a vital program, and they help a lot, but it’s ridiculous to think they help too much, or even enough. Households with children have a rate of about 37 percent food insecurity. After food stamps, food insecurity drops, but remains at 24.1 percent. That is, almost a quarter of households receiving food stamps STILL can’t reliably feed everyone. And that doesn’t even get into health or nutrition. With SNAP benefits, you’ve got about 1.50 per meal to work with per person, oftentimes less. Another big problem is that there isn’t enough information out there on how to use this assistance.
Cooking on SNAP
Good and Cheap takes these concerns into account. While there are many budget-friendly recipe resources out there (see also: Budget Bytes), Good and Cheap is specifically aimed at SNAP recipients. It’s prefaced with some tips for establishing a kitchen (useful for anyone, but especially for people with restrictive budgets), what’s a good idea to scrimp or splurge on, and it proudly extolls the virtues of eggs.
Cooking “real food” on a thin wallet takes some intense budgeting, and without guides like this, you’ll be copying down prices in a notebook and doing depressing math problems just to eat within your means. Not many people have the time or patience for that. A collection of recipes that’s cost-conscious is the kind of “healthy eating” advice people can actually use and benefit from.
The food looks really tasty! And for sure, you can make good, attractive meals on a budget. As the book says, cooking is mostly about honing technique. If you have access to a market and time to cook, you can batch-cook meals for a week, throw together great snacks, and even fancy it up once in a while without a whole lot of effort.
But know-how isn’t all it takes. Having time to cook is out of reach for a lot of people, rich or poor. And there’s another problem — sometimes fresh ingredients just aren’t available.
I’ve seen all kinds of well-meaning crap from people about healthy eating — that it’s cheaper and healthier to cook at home than it is to get a meal at McDonald’s, that grapes are a better snack than Fritos. They’re not wrong, but they’re also…wrong.
Produce isn’t as accessible as people think. Most places you can get an apple or a banana, but healthful shit like kale and parsnips aren’t a national commodity, particularly in areas with a high level of SNAP assistance. Where fruits and vegetables are sold, they’re lower quality and cost as much or more than produce in wealthier areas. Dairy products like milk and eggs often have an inflated price as well.
More often, people on SNAP have junk food available. While they often lack for supermarkets, low-income areas are packed with liquor stores and bodegas, which offer household staples, but rarely even stock produce outside of the aforementioned apples and bananas. The food that’s easiest, cheapest, and the tastiest for your money is the worst for you. Every food in America is made of corn, pretty much. Unless it’s a vegetable that isn’t corn, it’s corn. For the people who most need to be budget-conscious, the most budget-conscious foods are junk. For a lot of these people, the recipes in Good and Cheap are out of reach, even with the costs accounted for.
To its credit, the book totally addresses some of these problems. It admits to calling for certain expensive kitchen tools, and a statement in the book acknowledges that many people don’t have a kitchen to work with. The issues of hunger and nutrition in America are gigantic, and a battle on multiple fronts is required to solve them. This book is for people with the time and resources to cook. As a cookbook, that’s about as good as it can do. For its part, Good and Cheap is worthy of props.
Good and Cheap was originally released as a free PDF, but its target audience doesn’t live on the internet, and its information should be spread as far as possible. The book’s print version Kickstarter has 26 days left! It’s fully funded, but further donations will send even more copies to non-profits to help the people who really need these recipes.