Eating Richly: Even When You’re Broke

by Sarah Henry on July 3, 2012 · 27 comments

in bay area bites,food security,frugal gourmet,recipes

It’s probably safe to say that there aren’t too many formerly homeless food bloggers around.

But that perspective — what it feels like to taste hunger and not know where your next meal is coming from — informs everything about how Diana Johnson, the voice behind Eating Richly: Even When You’re Broke, approaches her food blog, dedicated to penny-pinching, nutritious recipes for those living on a shoestring or less.

The bubbly blonde with a heart as big as her smile was once part of the so-called hidden hungry, living in her car and finding food wherever she could. These days she’s helping people down on their luck learn how to cook and eat well on a budget in free community classes in Auburn, Washington, where she lives, and through her online presence as well.

Johnson, 31, recently spoke about her experience at the BlogHer Food conference in Seattle, where she appeared on a panel discussing hunger in America and community action to feed the needy.

She caught up with Bay Area Bites during the two-day event.

Diana Johnson helps the hungry cook cheaply and eat well. Photo: Heather Johnson

Hunger is really personal for you. Can you tell us about that?

It all started when I lost my job suddenly during 2001, right after September 11. I worked in the tourism industry; I was a dancer on cruise ships and in hotels. All of a sudden, I did not have money for food. One month I literally only had a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter for the whole month. There were some days when I was so hungry.

I was a volunteer doing musical theater at the time and nobody knew. It was hard to go out and try to look for jobs and present myself when I was living in my car and I was weak and exhausted. Fortunately, I was living in Hawaii at the time, so I could shower at the beach. It was really easy to hide it.

What happened next?

I got a part-time job at Starbucks and after I got my first paycheck I was able to find a teeny tiny apartment. It was actually a storage shed that had been turned into an apartment by adding a toilet and a refrigerator. Once I paid my rent, my cell phone bill, and electricity for the month I only had one or two dollars a day for food.

That was when I started living off the Dollar Menu at Jack in the Box. I would have a chicken sandwich every morning on my way to work and then if I felt I could spare another dollar I’d have two tacos for dinner in the evening. And I ate that way for over a year.

The recipe developer focuses on simple, nutritious dishes that taste good too. Photo: Diana Johnson

Did you find yourself getting creative about where to find free food?

I did. Fortunately in Hawaii there are a lot of fruit trees. My church had grapefruit and lychee trees. I knew all the different places around where there were trees I could pick fruit. I had friends who would say let’s go out to eat and I would come just to tag along and say I wasn’t really hungry and they’d let me finish up food they couldn’t eat. That was also part of the reason I kept doing musical theater: We had potlucks all the time. And I was very blessed to have families in my church who would have me over for dinner.

What turned things around for you on the food front?

It was when a friend gave me a bag of groceries — she knew me well enough to know I was struggling, although I don’t think she knew just how much I was struggling — and she also knew me well enough that she didn’t just give me a bag of groceries. She said she and her husband had gone to the store on the same day and didn’t realize it so they had extra food. She didn’t want me to feel embarrassed.

I still remember what was in it: There were two cans of Dole pineapple, bell peppers, cans of beans, soy sauce, and much more. I wrote it all down, it’s on my site. I was able to cook for myself for a week.

I felt so much better that week when I was eating real food instead of fast food. And that’s when the light bulb went on for me: What if I take my $7-10 dollars a week to the grocery store? And so I became kind of a student of the grocery store, trying to figure out how to stretch my money, especially in a place like Hawaii, which is astronomically expensive.

I signed up for every free club card. At Starbucks, when people would throw out their newspapers, I would fish them out of the bin and search for coupons. I would look at all the discard bins in the store where they put things on sale because they’re dented or about to expire and shop there.

This was the start of my journey learning to cook by using what I had or what was on sale. i had a lot of failures: The worst one was when I tried to use the buttermilk ranch dressing from Jack in the Box with ramen noodles and peas to try to make some kind of pasta. It was terrible.

But I also had some really great successes, like using the same ramen noodles with some soy sauce packets from a local sushi place — I couldn’t afford sushi but I would go in and take their soy sauce packets and honey packets from a fast food place — and I used that to make something like a teriyaki sauce. And I’d toss that with some frozen or canned vegetables in a stir fry, maybe with some Spam (Spam is really big in Hawaii). I started with really bare bones stuff.

Then I learned how to slowly build a pantry. For example, if I only spent $7 one week, and was able to save $3, I’d have enough to buy a big bottle of soy sauce.

Johnson focuses on whole foods that nourish like this dish for Orange Maple Carrots. Photo: Diana Johnson

Did your parents know?

My parents didn’t know a lot of what was going on. After reading about it on my blog, my mom did let on that when she came out to visit back then she was very concerned. She told my dad that I was malnourished: She could just see it in my skin, eyes, and hair.

But I wouldn’t have taken their help. At the time we didn’t have a good relationship. I was running away from hurts in my life and still hadn’t gotten to a place of self-acceptance to be able to then figure out how I fit with the rest of my family.

Why did you start blogging about eating on a budget?

My husband Eric and I met in Washington at church when I was visiting for my sister’s college graduation. Three months after I moved there in 2006 we started dating. We actually got married a year to the day after our first date. He would ask me to cook things over again and because I didn’t follow recipes, I would type them up on my personal blog — I called it Dianasaur Dishes — just so I could keep track of things. I would often put how we saved money on a recipe because we were still on a tight budget — we made $12,000 between us for the first year we were married. We had about $100 a month for food.

Why did you change the name of your blog recently?

I chose Eating Richly because I wanted to focus on foods that are rich in both nutrients and flavor. I made the shift a few months ago. Dianasaur Dishes was just for me. But when people started telling me how helpful it was I realized that my blog wasn’t just for me, it was for others too, and I really wanted to have a title that better described what the blog does.

Eric and I decided it was something we wanted to work on together as well. Dianasaur Dishes was mine. Eating Richly is ours. That’s really important to me. He jokes he’s the CTO: Chief technical officer. He’s also my chief recipe tester and dish washer. And he also does videos: We shoot them together and he edits them.

Do you still cook on a budget at home and how do you cook now?

We’re still very frugal: Yes, we’re both earning and between the two of us, we were able to buy a house — a foreclosure — but money is still tight. We also host two exchange students — they’re teenage boys, they eat a lot — so for the four of us we budget $400 a month on groceries.

I make most things from scratch now. I still have a few short-cut items that I’ll buy like frozen ravioli — the kind that are healthy, all natural, and ingredients that I recognize. Sometimes I’ll get home and we’ve had stir fry three times in a row, (it’s my go-to 15-minute meal), so we’ll boil a pot of water and throw in some ravioli. We like very simple foods. We make lots of frittatas, omelets and salads. We eat sandwiches for lunch almost every day, we slice our own lunch meal–roast beef or turkey breast. I make my own mustard and pickles. I grind my own flour for cookies and pizza dough but i have not learned to bake my own bread well yet.

Johnson's version of Healthy Banana Bread. Photo: Diana Johnson

What have you learned about working with the hungry for four years?

The biggest thing I’ve learned, in the program I created called Healthy Cooking on a Tight Budget, is something I should have known from my own experience: Hunger is not recognizable. You can be in a room full of people and not know that a tenth of them are struggling with hunger. Recently, at a food bank in my area, a doctor who had just lost his practice because of the economy came in because he didn’t have money for food. Hunger is humbling for everyone.

Any myths about the hungry you’d like to debunk?

I don’t think the stereotypes around hunger are always accurate. Some people think that those who are hungry are homeless or have made poor choices and that’s why they’re hungry. But there are so many people who are hungry from losing a job or getting injured and being unable to work or just because of circumstances like a death in the family. You just never know. It could be your neighbor, it could be your third grade teacher, or it could be you.

What are some of the challenges helping hungry people?

Some food banks have the mindset that we just need to get food to people, no matter what its nutritional value. That’s something that I run into regularly. One of the food banks I teach classes at gives away giant platters of donated cakes to kids and families.

What really makes me sad is a lot of these people are taking the bus or walking to the food bank so they get their bag of groceries, and there are bags with apples, onions, and potatoes, and these huge trays of cupcakes. If they can’t carry it all home they tend to leave the bag of apples and carry the cupcakes.

Sometimes it can just get discouraging and tiring — there’s so much need out there — and sometimes people don’t know what to do with basic staples like dried beans, rice, or plain yogurt. I’m creating specific recipes for these items that can just get stuck in the bag that goes home so people have some ideas about what to do with the ingredients they get.

What’s rewarding about what you do in your community cooking classes?

I enjoy hearing people’s stories and seeing them have that light bulb moment like I had when I got that bag of groceries. Every time there are new people in my classes I want them to know I’m not just some foodie coming in and telling them what to do. It helps to share my story. I’ve talked with food bloggers who can’t believe that some people don’t make everything from scratch.

But I’ve used the $1 box of noodles that were absolutely horrible and had no nutritional value but was the best I knew at the time. Still, it was a step above fast food. It gives me an understanding of what’s realistic and that you have to take baby steps.

This post originally appeared on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.

You might also like:

Tracie McMillan, The American Way of Eating, and Rush
Everyone Deserves to Eat: Andre Green’s Kitchen Wisdom
Operation Frontline: Teaching the Needy to Cook

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Alisa Bowman July 5, 2012 at 11:01 am

This is such a beautiful story. I’m glad she was able to turn this around and transform a hardship into an opportunity.
Alisa Bowman´s last [type] ..30 Tips For a Happy Life

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Sarah Henry July 5, 2012 at 2:13 pm

The word inspiring is so overused these days, I’m loathe to use it here, but it is apt in Diana’s case.

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Brette Sember July 5, 2012 at 11:09 am

This is an inspiring story. I also think this serves as a reminder that when we want to donate to food banks that we should choose foods with lots of nutrients that are easy to carry.
Brette Sember´s last [type] ..Ring of Fire Celebration

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Sarah Henry July 5, 2012 at 2:15 pm

Good point, Brette, about nutrient-dense foods that are easy to transport as best bets when donating to food banks.

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Alexandra July 5, 2012 at 11:26 am

This is such a neat story. Really enjoyed it. Our little tourist town has a Food Pantry and they are in need of contributions. It seems crazy when you see the lines at the restaurants in summer, how there could also be people in town who have nothing to eat. I think Diana is right about never forgetting hunger. When my dad first came to the USA after the Russian Revolution, there was a period where he had nothing to eat. He never forgot and sent $ to relatives who were less fortunate all his life.
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Another Letter Published by Cape Cod Times

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Sarah Henry July 5, 2012 at 2:17 pm

I think anyone who has experienced hunger from lack of money is unlikely to forget it, Sandy, as you say. And the irony that people line up for food at restaurants while others line up for a bag of groceries to eat is a sign of the times we live in, for sure.

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Living Large July 5, 2012 at 2:30 pm

What a wonderful story, I really enjoyed it. I’m so glad she turned her experiences into a way to help others.

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Sarah Henry July 5, 2012 at 8:03 pm

Diana has a remarkable spirit that I suspect touches all those she meets.

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MyKidsEatSquid July 6, 2012 at 6:40 am

“Hunger is humbling for everyone.” That sentence stuck out to me. It really impresses me that Diana didn’t turn inward during her most difficult times but seemed to stay positive and then turn outward to help others. Just amazing. Thanks for sharing this, I needed it today.

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Sarah Henry July 7, 2012 at 10:30 am

Hunger is humbling and yet Diana is able to take the sting of shame out of it for people, I think, which is a huge gift right there.

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Angie July 6, 2012 at 6:41 am

I can definitely relate. I was a single mom and had a medically fragile child at about 1 1/2 yrs old, when we landed in a battered women’s shelter. It was a month, but to me was forever. I couldn’t eat, and for a while did without (oh the shelter had food, but didn’t seem right to me to take theirs when there were others who needed it more). My son required expensive pediasure at the time as well. It took a month, and found a job, small apartment, and started living on $15 a week for food/gas/daycare so I could work, then moved up over time.

My husband’s dad came here from Cuba, and he tells of how the family had little and sometimes no food. Papa makes sure that no one leaves his house hungry, and if you do, it’s your own fault. He’s told of how they’ve ate things we wouldn’t dream of to stave off starvation. He made sure hubby and his siblings never wanted for food, tho it may been beans and rice, there was food to eat.

I know there are hungry folks out there. There’s been hard times in our own family where we’ve had to go to a food bank…while we were grateful for all that we were given, there’s not a lot of meals you can make with a can of frosting, cake batter, and chips. I was most grateful for the beans, noodles, rice, potatoes (instant or real), etc…those made a lot more meals for the kids.

I cook almost exclusively from scratch now. I make our own breads, meals, learning canning, grow a small garden, make use of sales/farmers markets/etc, even make our own soaps for laundry and dishwasher. We eat out once in a while, but homemade is sooo much better!
Angie´s last [type] ..Psalm of the Day–Psalm 36

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Sarah Henry July 7, 2012 at 10:32 am

Angie: Thank you so much for taking the time to share your story here. I’m so glad to learn that things have turned around for you — you sound very resilient. All best.

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HeatherL July 7, 2012 at 7:26 am

Wow, Sarah. Diana just lives in the next town over from me and I’ve never heard about her before. Thank you.

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Sarah Henry July 7, 2012 at 10:33 am

Ah, Heather, love it when these local connections take place. Go say hi to Diana from me.

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Sheryl July 7, 2012 at 12:12 pm

at the risk of sounding repetitive – this story is truly inspiring. It’s so interesting to read about how someone who was in such dire straights could manage to make lemonade from lemons (ok…another cliche, but apt, no?)

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Sarah Henry July 8, 2012 at 9:32 am

I thought the same thing, Sheryl, cliches and all.

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mer July 8, 2012 at 8:49 am

Great interview and story. I really truly enjoyed reading it. It made me feel a kind of solid peacefulness and sense of “yes-ness”…if that makes sense. Thank you!
mer´s last [type] ..stuck/unstuck: Alisa Bowman: writers: focus on fear and awareness of fear are two different things (and only one helps)

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Sarah Henry July 8, 2012 at 9:32 am

Love how you express yourself, merr, and yes it makes sense to me.

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Roxanne July 9, 2012 at 7:50 am

I’m humbled just reading this story. I’m off to subscribe right now to her blog.
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Sarah Henry July 9, 2012 at 9:01 am

Diana will be so happy to hear that, Rox.

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Jane Boursaw July 9, 2012 at 8:55 am

What a story. An encouraging, hopeful story. Thanks for posting it and reminding us there’s always a way, even when things seem grim.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..The Dark Knight Rises Cast Gathers at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre for Christopher Nolan (VIDEO)

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Sarah Henry July 9, 2012 at 9:02 am

My pleasure, Jane. Sometimes you stumble on a story that just begs to be told. This is one of those stories.

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Susan Johnston July 9, 2012 at 12:43 pm

Wow – what an inspirational story! Good for Diana for turning things around.
Susan Johnston´s last [type] ..My First Foodie Penpals

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Sarah Henry July 18, 2012 at 11:00 am

She’s one of those people, Susan, who you’re grateful you’ve had the chance to meet.

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Donna Hull July 16, 2012 at 11:49 am

What an inspiring story. I’ll certainly think twice about the times that I donate to food banks to make sure that I’m contributing to another person’s good nutrition.
Donna Hull´s last [type] ..Saturday’s scene: discovering a Montana secret

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Sarah Henry July 18, 2012 at 11:01 am

So glad to hear you say that, Donna, and hope others will follow suit.

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