Rachel Bolden-Kramer knows what it means to struggle. Despite being the first in her family to go to college (she graduated from Harvard University with a degree in Social Studies and Spanish), she scrambled to find employment in the midst of the financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession. A physical injury inspired her to learn yoga and other natural healing practices, which led her to open a yoga center in New York. But she still relied on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to put food on the table.
Even on a fixed, limited budget, Bolden-Kramer stretched every dollar to eat the most nutritious foods possible. She learned to navigate the challenges of the social welfare system, and used her organizational and advocating skills to teach workshops on radical healing—living in a way to minimize inflammation and disease—commissioned by the New York City Housing Authority. The birth of her daughter brought her home to San Francisco, but it didn’t stop her teaching. In 2017, Bolden-Kramer raised more than $27,000 on Kickstarter to publish her first cookbook, My Food Stamps Cookbook.
But Bolden-Kramer is determined to use her struggles to help others. In addition to her recently published cookbook, she works as a doula and parenting coach, and runs a preschool dedicated to teaching healthful habits to the next generation. Eager to learn more about her experiences, I reached out to hear her story and see what she plans to explore next. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
RACHEL BOLDEN-KRAMER: I wanted to introduce the world to my daughter and my lifestyle and the obstacles we overcame to get here. I used to think my daughter and I had such a horrible story—I mean, I was in court for years fighting to keep my newborn baby. I lost the business I built and my apartment before I had my daughter. We were homeless for quite some time, living with friends and sometimes in motels. It was truly the worst circumstances I could imagine as a new mother. I felt ashamed that maybe I had somehow caused all this to happen. But with lots of care and compassion, I began to unwind the spiral of doom. As soon as I felt my power coming back, I knew I had to share our story for others like us who think it is impossible to overcome the darkest of nights. And I knew I needed to keep my promise to all the folks who supported me as a young business owner and publish this guide to eating powerfully.
KM: Who helped you along the way?
RBK: I had a wonderful free therapist at the Homeless Prenatal Program. You don’t have to be homeless, but it’s available if you’re low-income. It lifted a whole weight off of me. It also got a lot easier after I had a stable place to stay in San Francisco, where I grew up.
KM: What were some challenges you faced while living on SNAP?
RBK: My biggest challenge with eating on a budget has always been time. When your budget is low, it means you're probably dealing with a lot of responsibilities—a reason why I detest the rhetoric about poor people who are eligible for food stamps. You hear, “People just need to get a job” or “work harder.” Or that they’re lazy. There is such a thing as welfare fraud, but the majority of people are people like me. It's usually people who are healing or providing care to others, like children and elders. I cared for my mom with Alzheimer's as well as an infant, and managing the needs of all three of us was a full time job. We actually always had a surplus of food from programs when my daughter was really young. But it’s challenging to prep your food when you're exhausted from breastfeeding and cleaning, and barely getting anything done for yourself. The impulse is to grab a quick fix.
KM: What type of food do you turn to?
RBK: I fess up to my doughnut-and-coffee diet in the book. We got free vegan doughnuts from a food pantry and that was always easier to eat than tossing together a nice organic salad (also free from pantry). But I've learned to prepare more nutritious foods in advance so that it’s easily available when I need comfort, like chopped vegetables and fruit.
KM: How do you manage stress and self-care?
RBK: I practice meditation and focus on forgiveness and compassion. And while that is helpful, I know I need a lot of physical comfort to heal my stress—regular gym time and spa visits. I do yoga daily since I am a trained teacher, but I also need to attend classes to get a little encouragement. I work on creating a life-work balance by determining boundaries and trading childcare time with my friends so that we all get a break.
KM: What does that support system look like?
RBK: The funny thing is that a lot of my community comes from the cookbook. Before the book was finished, I organized a lot of projects to engage my community and get their input. I hosted dinners with other single moms and other doulas. We’d talk about breakthroughs, breakdowns, goals, and I would pitch ideas to them over kale salad. It strengthened my tribe.
KM: What are challenges you've witnessed others face on SNAP?
RBK: It really is a belittling experience for a lot of people, and it takes a lot of time. I remember getting up early with my friends to get to the food stamps office before the line got bad. Otherwise you would be there all day. People get discouraged by the long waits, the sometimes not-so-helpful attitude of the workers, and the many requirements to keep their assistance cases open.
KM: What are some things you wished fellow parents knew?
RBK: One thing most stressed-out parents should know is that there are agencies that can handle the entire assistance case without you needing to leave your home. I used the food bank to do this for myself and my daughter when we first applied as a family.
KM: How does your work currently help others?
RBK: In addition to running a preschool and nursery, I am a birth doula. I was at a beautiful birth the day when I found out I reached my Kickstarter goal. The client was someone who couldn't afford a doula, but I’m part of a small collective that raises funds so we can provide these services to people pro bono. At the postpartum visit for this family, they asked what to eat to make good breast milk and heal from birth. I immediately connected them with a local CSA delivery that accepts food stamps. Now they get produce to their home weekly.
Today, Bolden-Kramer lives in San Francisco with her daughter and mother. She owns and operates a preschool dedicated to teaching healthful habits to the next generation, and also teaches current and future parents how to incorporate nutritious foods into their everyday lives. My Food Stamps Cookbook is her first cookbook.