Jack Monroe: the face of modern poverty.
A mother’s blog about feeding herself and her son for £10 a week has led to her becoming a sought-after campaigner.
A year ago, a bright, unemployed 24-year old single mother in Southend summarised in a blogpost the fear, humiliation and desperation of living on the breadline. It is one of the most moving and vivid accounts of the reality of modern poverty.
The piece, entitled Hunger Hurts, was written when Jack Monroe was at her wits’ end: no money, the food cupboard bare, the housing benefit cheque turning up, inexplicably, £100 short. Monroe describes in intricate detail how she had asset-stripped her life to pay the bills: sold her watch, iPhone and TV. She writes of the energy-sapping boredom of “getting by”, and the paradox that the poorer she gets, the more expensive her electricity becomes as the supply is moved from mains to meter.
“Poverty is the sinking feeling when your small boy finishes his one Weetabix and says: ‘More, Mummy, bread and jam please, Mummy,’ as you’re wondering whether to take the TV or the guitar to the pawnshop first, and how to tell him that there is no bread or jam,” she wrote.
This and other posts are filled with the minutiae of a life in poverty: the forensic, penny-pinching accounting that accompanied every trip to the supermarket; the shame of referral to a food bank; the time she sold the entire contents of her house – crockery, curtains and all – to pay off rent arrears; the hundreds of failed job applications, painstakingly typed out on a mobile phone; the dread that all this paupery might somehow attract the attention of children’s social services.
It wasn’t just the accounts of poverty that set the blog A Girl Called Jack apart, however, but the recipes. Scores of them, beautifully set out and photographed, and carefully costed: Mumma Jack’s Best Ever Chilli, 30p (“Since Sainsbury’s has hiked up the price of kidney beans, I’ve bought dried ones”), or Oh My God Dinner, 28p.
Filled with humour and almost real-time practical advice about the weekly price movements of supermarket food, it is a plain-speaking, practical austerity cookery guide – quite literally how to feed yourself and your toddler on £10 a week, in ways that are healthy, tasty and, importantly (to relieve the tedium of baked beans), varied.
The recipes require the bare minimum of kitchen equipment (“If you just have an electric two-ring plug-in you can cook most of the things that I cook”). They are fuel-efficient, rarely taking longer than 15 minutes to prepare. Ingredients are what you might find in an ordinary local supermarket. There is a risk, of course, that Monroe’s recipes will be seized upon by people eager to “prove” that food poverty is a myth, or that benefit payments must be too high. Cooking can be done cheaply, she says, but it is more complicated than that. She had been passionate about cooking ever since her food technology course at school (“a form of escapism from all the words and numbers”). Not only did she have the skills to experiment with her own dishes, she says, but, more importantly, she had the confidence.