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Can you cook delicious meals on just $4 a day?

Can someone receiving food stamp benefits eat well on an average budget of $4 per day? That was the simple question that Leanne Brown set out to answer as a student, and now it's the core of her new cookbook, "Good and Cheap." With Thanksgiving approaching, William Brangham follows Brown in the grocery store and the kitchen to learn more about her recipes.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    People are dusting off roasting pans and stove tops to make family favorites this week, but for tens of millions of Americans, getting dinner on the table many nights can be a financial challenge.

    Correspondent William Brangham went to New York to visit the author of a new cookbook aimed at helping families eat well while stretching their food dollars. He was there just in time to try a few recipes for Thanksgiving.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Walking through a grocery store with Leanne Brown, you're going to get a whirlwind of advice.

    LEANNE BROWN, Author, "Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day": You want to get these little snack-size guys. But they are often about double the price of what you would pay if you're just buying the larger quantity.

    Always get a can of tomatoes, rather than a jar. Always in almost all of these is large tomatoes.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Brown's mission is to help shoppers on a tight budget stretch their money and to create new options in the kitchen. It's at the core of her new cookbook, "Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day."

    The book began as her master's thesis when she was at New York University's Food Studies Program. Brown wanted to develop recipes to answer a simple question: Could someone on food stamp benefits eat well on the program's average budget of $4 per person per day?

  • LEANNE BROWN:

    Sure, there's a lot of sort of black and white pamphlets and there's a lot like, here's how to eat cheaply. But there wasn't as much stuff on how to still eat well.

    And as sort of, not a lifelong cooking, but a most-of-my-life-long cook, I know that the cost of basic foods is so inexpensive, you just need to know how to put them together. That's where the magic is.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    To Brown's way of thinking, eating well isn't a luxury, but a basic right.

  • LEANNE BROWN:

    Four dollars a day is not something that anyone should try to do. It's a reality for 46 million people.

    And in some ways, I think it was a reaction to when I was studying and thinking, this is so unjust, this is so difficult, this is so terrible.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Thesis finished, Brown posted the recipes and her own photos on her Web site free for anyone to download. When someone posted that on a popular online message board, it took off.

  • LEANNE BROWN:

    At first, I felt like something horrible had happened, because, at that point, nobody had been to my Web site, except, like, my father to tell me about all of the mistakes I had on there.

    You know, like, nobody was visiting it. I was like, what is going on? But it turned out to be all these people who were really excited about it who were saying, this is going to be helpful for me in my life right now.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    That led to a Kickstarter campaign. Brown met her $10,000 goal in just 36 hours. She eventually raised 14 times that, and sent more than 30,000 low- or no-cost books to various nonprofits to give away to their clients.

    The book's now been published, complete with 50 new recipes. For every copy purchased, one is given away to someone in need. The book's popularity reaches beyond those stuck with extremely tight budgets. Maybe it's because Brown's message is so different from popular cooking shows and foodie magazines, where good cooking is really complex.

  • LEANNE BROWN:

    I like to think of my role as kind of coaxing people to just give it a try, because it's so easy, actually. You have to try it. And then I think cooking sells itself.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The fast-approaching holidays don't mean Brown's principles of thoughtful, efficient shopping and cooking have to go out the window.

    So, it's Thanksgiving season.

  • LEANNE BROWN:

    Yes.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    People are starting to think about planning for that meal. What are some basic guidelines you would offer?

  • LEANNE BROWN:

    Oh, man.

    Well, so this is the time of the year where everyone is, first, cooking from scratch, which is awesome. And you're eating a lot of seasonal foods as well, which is also awesome. That's like a good and cheap principle.

    The thing that I want everyone to really keep in mind is that you shouldn't feel like you have to make all 20 of those sort of side dishes, because that can get really inefficient.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Brown picked a few recipes from the book that could work as Thanksgiving sides and appetizers.

  • LEANNE BROWN:

    We're going to make Thanksgiving-style deviled eggs.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    I love deviled eggs.

  • LEANNE BROWN:

    I love deviled eggs too. They're such a great little party snack.

    And so, really, I always say, like, obviously, the classic is fantastic, but you can make them taste like anything that you happen to have around. So we're just going to basically cut all these guys. I already boiled them. We're going to take beautiful rosemary and a little bit of one of my favorite sides, pureed squash.

    And this is just pureed squash with garlic. This is sort of my favorite. And so it's the one that we're adding to here, but it could be a lot of different things. Like, this could be sweet potatoes or this could be maybe a mashed cauliflower or something like that, whatever you have around, if you think that could go well with eggs. Like, why not?

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    And so you don't mind — if you're serving this dish with these eggs, you feel like these are distinct enough that you're not overlapping?

  • LEANNE BROWN:

    No, totally. I think this just sort of brings the meal together.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Each serving of these costs just about 15 cents. In fact, all of Brown's recipes show you roughly what they will cost.

    Next up was her cheesy cauliflower, a substitute for mac and cheese. It comes to about $1.65 per serving.

  • LEANNE BROWN:

    Basically, all we did was, we chopped up our beautiful cauliflower and we just boiled it for about three to four minutes.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    OK.

  • LEANNE BROWN:

    So — and now we have that in the bowl. We're going to make our sauce. So, we're going to let the butter melt, one bay leaf, and about three cloves of chopped garlic.

    And we're going to add our flour, just all in there at once. This is a cup-and-a-half of milk. And then we will grab our cheese.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    So, the cheese sauce goes over the cauliflower?

  • LEANNE BROWN:

    Yes. We're just going to bake it at 400 for about 40, 45 minutes.

    But I have one baking already, so we can grab that right now. Oh, yes. Oh, my gosh.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Gorgeous.

    Your book, on the surface, seems like a cookbook. It's masquerading as a cookbook.

  • LEANNE BROWN:

    Right.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    But it certainly seems like there is a manifesto buried on every page there.

  • LEANNE BROWN:

    Right.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    I mean, am I reading into that, or is that there?

  • LEANNE BROWN:

    No, I think it's definitely there. I think of it as a strategy guide for sort of eating well.

    You know, how do we do this whole thing? And cooking is a massive part of it, but it's not all of it. And I think the manifesto part is that, yes, it's a strategy guide and it's a thing we have to do, but it's also something that we all absolutely deserve, regardless of how much money we have.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Today, more than 71,000 copies of "Good and Cheap" have gone to nearly 900 nonprofits around the country, where they're distributed to clients who couldn't afford to buy it otherwise.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm William Brangham in New York City.

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