How to eat on just $4 a day

By April Dykman, For Get Rich Slowly

Published: Thu, Aug. 21, 2014, 12:50 p.m. MDT

 I view food as a cross between health care and hobby. And I know I’m fortunate to be in a position to buy things like freshly pressed olive oil and porcini mushrooms.

I view food as a cross between health care and hobby. And I know I’m fortunate to be in a position to buy things like freshly pressed olive oil and porcini mushrooms.

(Fuse, Getty Images/Fuse)

Editor's note: This article originally ran on the personal finance blog Get Rich Slowly. It has been reprinted here with permission.

I spend a lot of money on food. (More than I spend on my mortgage.)

Part of it is need, of course. But much of it is want, because I’m both an enthusiastic cook and a health nut. I view food as a cross between health care and hobby. And I know I’m fortunate to be in a position to buy things like freshly pressed olive oil and porcini mushrooms. I know that not everyone has that option. For some people, food is about survival. They have to stretch their food budget as far as they possibly can. Sometimes they go to bed hungry.

Being realistic

From time to time, I read GRS comments asking for advice for people who are struggling just to make ends meet. They can barely afford to eat, let alone save a six-month emergency fund or open a Roth IRA.

Comments like those always stay with me, but I’ve shied away from writing about those topics because I feel awkward doling out advice on something I know nothing about. I don’t know what it’s like to struggle to put food on the table. I’m not a teacher or a social worker who witnesses struggles like that.

And I certainly didn’t want to repeat McDonald’s blunder, when it created an unrealistic sample budget for its minimum-wage workers, inadvertently proving that its workers couldn’t live on a McDonald’s salary. The budget estimate didn’t include line items for heating or child care, so you know it was just a little out of touch and completely unhelpful to its minimum-wage workers.

But last weekend I came across an article about Leanne Brown, and I immediately knew I would share her story on GRS.

Eating on $4/day

Brown moved from Canada to New York to pursue a master’s degree in food studies. While volunteering with food access programs, she noticed that people in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program were eating a lot of processed and unhealthy foods.

“It really bothered me,” she told NPR. “The 47 million people on food stamps — and that’s a big chunk of the population — don’t have the same choices everyone else does.”

Part of the reason why they don’t have the same food choices is that the average SNAP benefit per person is $133 per month for food. That works out to roughly $4.30 per day.

Another problem is that to feed a family on $4 a day, you have to cook. And you have to cook in a way that most of our grandmas used to cook, knowledge that many people didn’t inherit. For instance, cooking an entire chicken is more cost-effective than buying individual cuts, especially if you use every bit of the bird, even making stock from the bones. But when I started cooking, I had no idea how to cook and carve an entire chicken let alone how to make stock. My education came from copies of Cook’s Illustrated and lots of trial and error. And before I taught myself how to cook, I didn’t know how to really use up all of my groceries. For instance, I used to throw away stale bread. Now I know how to make like an Italian grandma and throw it in some pappa al pomodoro. But of course, I have leisure time to cook, and food is my hobby. Some people don’t have time for hobbies. Instead, they have two jobs and kids to raise.

Finally, another big problem Brown noticed is that the recipes already out there for eating cheaply didn’t look or sound very appealing. She described them as “photocopied a bunch of times from a 1970s church cookbook, and not very inspiring.”

So Brown set out to create a solution to these problems, writing Good and Cheap: How to Eat Well on $4/Day, a cookbook for people on a tight budget.

Eating well, on the cheap

Brown’s book features recipes and ideas for eating well on $4 a day, with each meal priced by the serving.

It also offers advice about how to stock a pantry with meal-building basics like garlic and dried beans, how to use leftovers and options for substitutions, especially when it comes to produce. “I’ve gotten so many emails — heartwarming, heartbreaking emails — from people who tell me what this would have meant for them, growing up, to have guidance like this,” she told National Geographic’s The Plate.

And, it’s a nice-looking book, with recipes like vegetable jambalaya and savory summer cobbler. You know, stuff that real humans would actually want to eat.

But how do you get this resource out to the people who need it most?

Crowd-funding for a great cause

Brown first made her book available as a free PDF. “I created this book at the capstone project for my MA in food studies …” writes Brown in her book. “After I posted a free PDF on my website, it went viral on Reddit, Tumblr and elsewhere — almost 100,000 downloads in the first few weeks!”

Realizing she was solving a real pain point for a lot of people, Brown started thinking about how to reach more of the people she was writing for. For instance, someone without a computer or Internet access can’t download and cook from a PDF.

So Brown created a Kickstarter campaign to help fund printed copies. “The expensive part of printing books is the initial setup; the cost of each additional copy is fairly low,” she wrote on her campaign page. The more books people bought, the more she could donate or sell at a huge discount to organizations that support low-income families on SNAP.

The result? Her $10,000 campaign ended with $144,681. That translates to more than 26,000 copies for nonprofits at $4 per book, plus more than 6,000 additional copies donated by her Kickstarter backers. The books will ship in September, according to Brown’s site.

So in conclusion, Leanne Brown is my newest food hero. And although the Kickstarter campaign is over, you can still download her free PDF, donate money, buy a print copy or buy a copy and donate a copy at www.leannebrown.ca/cookbooks.

April Dykman is a freelance writer, editor and blogger who specializes in personal finance, real estate and entrepreneurship topics.

1. TiCon2
Cedar City, UT,
Aug. 21, 2014

We downloaded this book and have been incorporating recipes into our meal plan for the past several weeks and without exception they have been delicious! The two meals the writer specifically acknowledges - jambalaya and the summer cobbler - were particularly savory.

And the best part is that it's re-teaching people that grew up with cream of chicken based recipes how to properly use spices and other cheap flavor enhancers. Couldn't agree more with the 1970's church cookbook reference. Spot on.

All in all, two thumbs up from this reader.

2. Pr. Ingqvist
Tremonton, UT,
Aug. 21, 2014

I agree with needing to teach people how to cook and plan meals. I don't agree with the math in the atricle. No one is trying to feed a family on $4 a day. The average is $4 a day PER PERSON in the family. Feeding a family of 4 on $16 a day or $532 a month, is much more reasonable. The per person cost gets cheaper when you start making meals that feed several people.

My family was on foodstamps for a while and I can tell you that I have never eaten better. We received a lot more money than we would have spent on our own. At first I felt guilty that the government was almost doubling the amount of money I would have spent on food had it all been my own money. But if they are going to give it to me, I'm going to take it.

The real question is, shouldn't that money be a supplement to help the family get by? It shouldn't be the only money a family uses to buy food. The program does not exist to completely replace a family's food budget.

3. Mom of 8
Hyrum, UT,
Aug. 21, 2014

$4 a day per person is NOT that tough. I feed a family of 10 regularly on less, and the assumption that people don't know how to cook from scratch anymore is arrogant and narrow. Most of the moms I know do what I do--most everything from scratch, with coupons, and healthily.

No, it's not convenient, but it's a ton better.

4. george of the jungle
goshen, UT,
Aug. 21, 2014

Thank you I am regretful for the recipes. I can't say if I can give any gratuities. It's not till I can. But I wanted to say; your very kind.

5. Brave Sir Robin
San Diego, CA,
Aug. 22, 2014

Mississippi became the most obese state in the union by people trying to eat for $4/day. Cheap foods are high in fat and carbohydrates. They make you feel full...but they also make you fat.