When Leanne Brown moved to New York from Canada to earn a master's in food studies at New York University, she couldn't help noticing that Americans on a tight budget were eating a lot of processed foods heavy in carbs.
"It really bothered me," she says. "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."
Brown guessed that she could help people in SNAP, the federal government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, find ways to cook filling, nourishing and flavorful meals. So she set out to write a cookbook full of recipes anyone could make on a budget of just $4 a day.
The result is Good and Cheap, which is free online and has been downloaded over 200,000 times since she posted it on her website in early June. A July Kickstarter campaign also helped Brown raise $145,000 to print copies for people without computer access.
So what are Brown's secrets to eating well on $4 a day? It's about stocking the pantry with cheap basics to build meals from: things like garlic, canned vegetables, dried beans and butter.
She also emphasizes flexibility, and avoids prescribing strict meals and methods. That means lots of options for substitutions, especially when it comes to the produce aisle, where prices can fluctuate based on season and availability. Each meal is priced out by serving.
Earlier this week, Deborahmichelle Sanders, 63, of San Francisco, Calif., turned to the cookbook and found an intriguing recipe: cornmeal crusted vegetables with an Asian-inspired peanut sauce for dipping.
Since she couldn't afford the suggested beans or peppers, she tried carrots. The result? "It's so wonderful," she tells The Salt.
SNAP currently provides 46.2 million low-income people like Sanders with a monthly average stipend for food of $126 in the form of a debit card. They can take it to the grocery store, pick out their food and swipe the card at the register.
SNAP has no equivalent in Brown's home country of Canada; its public assistance programs are more flexible, she says. And she wasn't impressed with what she found when she went looking for resources for people in the U.S. program on how to cook well with the benefits.
"Tons of organizations are doing amazing, useful work, but usually their recipes can sound sort of preachy, or else they're very governmental," she says. Brown thinks the cookbooks that exist try to tell people the right way live their lives — explaining what exactly they should eat and how exactly they should prepare it — and that often turns them off to the recipes.
"As much as a recipe book, [Brown's book] is an idea book," says Brenda Mahoney of Dallas, Tex., another woman in SNAP who's using the book. In fact, some of Good and Cheap's pages come with exactly that label: "ideas."
One page, titled "Leftovers," offers tips on the myriad ways to make good use of old meals, like putting the fixings you originally used to top toast in a wrap or on a pizza, or turning almost anything into a sandwich. Another called "Popcorn!" recommends livening up the familiar snack by adding spices.
Good and Cheap is also filled with beautiful photos — a visual feast especially compared to the other recipe books tailored to people in SNAP.
Take the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals. Orange lines and black bullet points fill up entire pages, with equally uninspiring sketches on the side.
And compare their Turkey Cabbage Casserole to Brown's Savory Summer Cobbler, which both Sanders and Brenda Mahoney of Dallas cite as their favorite dish. Even the name draws a reader to the recipe, which features seasonal vegetables under a peppery biscuit crust. The lush photo that accompanies it on the page doesn't hurt either.
"You choose what vegetables you want, so I used tomato and a green-striped crookneck squash, which was the cheapest I could find," says Sanders. "It is so, so good."
"My kids loved the recipe," she says.
Mahoney cooks for her two children and herself, much like Mia Pickering, who lives in Seattle with her two teenagers. Sanders, Mahoney and Pickering have all been on SNAP for a number of years, and they say Good and Cheap, which they discovered online, works better for them than anything else they've been able to find. And that's important when what they can cook determines how well they and their families can eat.
"Cooking is definitely more economical and healthier than buying premade foods," says Mahoney.
Pickering thinks so, too. For her, it's easier to cook fresh than heat up frozen meals. It means she and her children throw less food away and exercise better portion control.
"Many authors have tried hard to come up with cheap meals, but they taste so bad. Leanne is so gifted. It's just incredible," says Saunders.
Sanders has been cooking since the eighth grade, so that's not a snap judgment.
Molly Roberts is an intern with NPR's Washington Desk.
Sales incentives helped U.S. auto sales rise in July, as major auto companies reported selling more than 120,000 more vehicles than the same month last year. GM retained its spot as the U.S. sales leader.
Sales of passenger cars rose by nearly 5 percent this July compared to last year, with sales of light trucks even higher, at 13.4 percent, according to data released Friday by research firm Autodata Corp.
GM sold 256,160 vehicles last month, beating Toyota's 215,802 and Ford's 211,467.
NPR's Sonari Glinton reports:
"Toyota, Ford, Nissan and Chrysler all saw their sales go up by double digits. And despite troubles at General Motors, sales at the Detroit car giant were up 9 percent over the same time last year.
Jessica Caldwell is a senior analyst at Edmunds.com. She says GM's recent spate of recalls may be helping it.
"'You have all these people coming back with these older cars into dealerships with these brand-new cars that are much nicer,' she says, 'and I think a lot of these people are leaving with new vehicles.'
"Meanwhile this month, victims of the GM ignition switch defect can begin filing claims for compensation. The company has set aside $400 million to cover the cost."
Sales of GM's cars slid by 3.8 percent from July 1013, but its light trucks and SUVs more than made up for it, spiking 17.5 percent, according to Autodata. In the calendar year to date, the company has sold 3.5 percent more cars.
Other automakers struggled. Some of the steepest sales declines were at Volvo, which sold 17 percent fewer vehicles compared to July of 2013, and Volkswagen, where sales were down 7.5 percent.
Honda also slumped, with a drop of nearly 4 percent from last July.
Super PACs let rich people, corporations and unions spend as much money as they want to try to influence the outcome of elections.
On today's show: How a Harvard professor created a super PAC to attack super PACs. He's raised millions of dollars — in part from really rich people — to reduce the political influence of really rich people.
For more on campaign finance, listen to Episode 538: I'm Calling To Ask For Your Contribution.
Think opera plots are tough to follow? Try wading through the complicated drama playing out offstage at the Metropolitan Opera. At its most basic, it's the story of management and labor unions fighting over a supposedly dwindling pot of money. The deadline to solve the squabble before a lockout, midnight Thursday, was met with little resolution but a 72-hour extension.
Nothing about the Met's labor imbroglio is elementary, including its large cast of characters. On one side you have Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager since 2006, and his counsel, Howard Z. Robbins, the attorney who represented the National Hockey League in its 2012-13 lockout.
Negotiating with Gelb are hordes of workers. About 2,400 of the Met's 3,400 employees are union members. They cover a broad swath of activities ranging from singing in the chorus, playing in the orchestra, dancing, painting sets, running the box office, singing solo roles, working in the call center, posting bills (advertising posters), running cameras and taking tickets. Three of these unions (Local 32BJ, Local 30 and Local 210) reached agreements Thursday. Here is a list of the unions involved:
AGMA (American Guild of Musical Artists) — chorus, soloists, dancers, stage directors, choreographers
AFM Local 802 (American Federation of Musicians) — orchestra, librarians, music staff
Directors Guild of America — directors and stage managers
IATSE Local One (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) — carpenters, electricians
IATSE Local 4 — parks crew
IATSE Local 751 — box office treasurers
IATSE Local 764 — wardrobe, costumers
IATSE Local 794 — camera crew
IATSE Local 798 — wig/hair and makeup artists
IATSE Local 829 — scenic artists, scenic, costume, lighting, sound, projection designers
IATSE Local 829BP — bill poster
IBT Local 210 (International Brotherhood of Teamsters) — call center
IUOE Local 30 (International Union of Operating Engineers) — building engineers
IUPAT Local 1456 (International Union Of Painters And Allied Trades) — painter
SEIU Local 32BJ (Service Employees International Union) — ushers, ticket takers, cleaners, porters, security, office services
The negotiations are now being conducted with the help of two officials from the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS), Deputy Director Allison Beck and Commissioner Kathleen Murray-Cannon.
The workers aren't always exactly unified. Each union has its own concerns and strategies. If one of the largest three unions — AGMA, IATSE Local 1 or AFM Local 802 — strikes a deal, it could greatly influence the negotiations for the remaining parties.
There have been many pronouncements about Gelb's artistic vision, the ups and downs of his tenure, the successful productions, the innovative Live HD movie theater broadcasts, the critical failures — even his attitudes about the viability of the art form.
Gelb's bottom line is that there's enough money to sustain the Met as is. "No matter how you slice it," he told NPR, "opera is incredibly expensive." Gelb, who claims that two-thirds of the company's costs are labor related, would like to cut some of the unions' benefits, especially when it comes to the convoluted structure of overtime pay.
The unions say Gelb is simply spending too much and that the company's $2.8 million deficit doesn't warrant the nearly $30 million in cuts he seeks. The Wall Street Journal recently took a look at Met expenses on specific productions and box office potential. Plenty of hand-wringing can also be found over the high salaries of both Gelb and some of the union members.
The debate seems particularly acrimonious this time, due partly to the fact that so much of the drama has played out in our 21st-century media — something you couldn't say about previous Met labor disputes, which date back to 1885.
Among the most debilitating in recent times were the disputes of 1969 and 1980. President Carter had to intervene in 1980, sending a telegram to the unions and management pleading for a resolution to save the season, which had been indefinitely postponed. In 1969, failed contract talks forced the Met to open its season three and a half months late.
How this season will be affected is still anyone's guess. It's a positive sign that three of the unions have already settled and the chorus showed up Friday for a rehearsal of The Merry Widow. Still, they are among the smaller groups.
Gelb released a statement Friday, saying, "We want to work together with union representatives, and do everything we can to achieve new contracts, which is why we've agreed to an extension." The president of AFM Local 802, Tino Gagliardi, also weighed in, saying that while Gelb's move to postpone the lockout was constructive, "Settling this dispute in three days is highly unrealistic."
In Detroit, protests continue over the city's massive effort to shut off water to thousands of customers who aren't paying their bills. Activists call the move a violation of a basic human need, while city officials call it an economic reality.
Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department has been accruing a massive debt for decades — in part because officials say there was only a token attempt to collect past-due bills. By this year, about half of all water customers were behind on payments, owing a combined $90 million.
So officials here launched an aggressive campaign targeting back payments, using the time-honored utility tactic of shutting off water service until payment arrangements were made.
Some Detroiters are split on the move.
Along the city's busy Woodward Avenue, longtime residents like Clifford Durham say water customers should have known what was coming.
"It's a shame that it's happening, but they had options and budget plans like, 10, 15 years ago," Durham says. "Tell 'em your situation. Don't wait 'til your bill is $300 or $400 and get a shut-off notice," he says. "The protesting that's gonna go on for the water I think is ridiculous."
A Cause Celebre
The sheer number of people shut off — 17,000 — has led to frequent demonstrations and some international attention. The United Nations declared it a human rights violation. Activists, a federal judge, even movie stars like actor Mark Ruffalo — who portrays the alter ego of The Hulk in the Avengers films — joined in what's truly become a cause celebre.
"There's no reason that this city and this state, with all of its wealth, can't come up with some sort of a program to keep this water from being turned off. I mean, it's insane," Ruffalo said.
City officials say they are setting up payment plans for residents, and add that more than half of those who had their water shut off subsequently paid their bills and had service quickly restored.
But others have tried to block the shut-offs, pouring concrete over water mains tagged by the city with blue paint — a kind of scarlet letter indicating the pipes there should be closed.
Tutorials have also spread on Facebook describing how to get water flowing again. Detroiter Nita O'Neal says it's relatively easy to find someone with the kind of long metal keys that open closed water valves — even though only city workers are supposed to have them.
"People gonna turn that water back on. Somebody has a water key, trust me. You give 'em $5, you gonna get your water back on," O'Neal says. "People have to have shelter, food and water."
Turning the water back on that way is, in fact, a crime — it's stealing water. But for families with little or no income, O'Neal says, the stakes are too high to worry about that.
"You got babies that's probably not taking baths. That's opening up the door for protective services to come in, say that you are unfit parent," she says. "This is a game that they're playing, and it's a serious, dangerous game."
City officials counter that water rates are going up in part because people game the system. Paying customers, they say, have to cover the costs for those not paying their bills.
But Water and Sewerage Deputy Director Darryl Latimer says the department wants to cooperate with customers, even those who argue water should be a right, not a privilege.
"I think water is a right. However, if all of our customers took that stand — that it's a human right and we're not gonna pay — then no one would have water," Latimer says.
It remains very much an evolving situation in the city. The water and sewerage department recently began targeting past-due commercial and residential customers, then declared a two-week moratorium on all shut-offs.
Detroit's emergency manager put Mayor Mike Duggan in charge of the formerly autonomous water system. But the department itself remains a bargaining chip in Detroit's ongoing bankruptcy proceedings. The city wants out of the water business and the debt it carries and is pushing to either regionalize or privatize the system.