My 49p Lunch With A Girl Called Jack: The Telegraph, 2nd March
“Food prices are soaring, and food itself, particularly budget food, is under scrutiny following the horsemeat debacle. Careful shopping and home cooking are suddenly a national priority. And with Government cuts hitting benefits, they are high on the political agenda, too.
This has driven Helen Goodman, Labour MP for Bishop Auckland, to try living on £18 a week, the amount that she has calculated some of her constituents will have left to spend on food (after utilities and non-food items) once changes to the benefit system, including the much-reviled “bedroom tax”, come into force in April. She finished the experiment last Sunday, having struggled to eat a healthy diet, and admitting, “If you don’t have much money… you do end up eating more bread and biscuits than ideally you would.”
I wouldn’t argue with that. But one of the people Goodman sought advice from is a young woman who, until recently, has been managing on far less –and producing healthy, delicious food as well.
Jack Monroe, 24, is a single mother whose delicious recipes, published online, are so nutritious and thrifty that they are being handed out by food banks as examples of how to manage on next to nothing. Her blog, A Girl Called Jack, has gathered 16,000 regular readers. She has a budget of just £10 a week to feed herself and her two-year-old son, Johnny – all she has to spare after covering rent and bills. It makes the fiver I’m allowed for my weekly budget recipe in this newspaper look indulgent.
How does she do it? I emailed Monroe for advice, and an invitation to join her for lunch at her home in Southend came whizzing back. “Bring an empty stomach,” she wrote. “I’m of Cypriot heritage, we have no concept of portion control.”
Monroe greeted me at the door to her flat in a Victorian terrace, fizzing with energy, her brown eyes bright, her thick dark hair in a bob that looked almost too heavy for her tiny frame.
The scent of cumin and garlic drifted tantalisingly down the narrow stairway: but first she took me shopping at her local Sainsbury’s, where she buys most of her food. This is not, she explained, from any particular loyalty, but because it is at the end of her road and it is cheaper shopping here than forking out the bus fares to another supermarket.
Jack filled me in on her journey from a job she loved with the fire service to unemployed single motherhood, to publishing her witty, trenchant blog. “English was one of my best subjects at school,” she says. ”I was a precocious reader and I won prizes as a child – a £5 book token aged 11 for a poem I wrote in junior school, that sort of thing.” But this early promise wasn’t fulfilled and she left school at 16 with seven GCSEs, moved out of the family home and took a job in a fish and chip shop.
The watershed came early last year, with a headline in the Southend Echo & Gazette: ”Druggies, drunks and single mums are ruining our town.” Monroe fired off an angry letter which the paper published. Her friends encouraged her to start the blog, and her incisive take on local politics (she attends every open council meeting) soon drew attention. But it was the recipes that have really excited the online community, earning scores of mentions on Twitter as well as plaudits from food professionals.
Inside the superstore, Monroe marched purposefully around the aisles, seeking out the orange Basics labels of the economy range. “If you can find something in the value range, buy it,” she advised. “It’ll be no worse than anything else. A tin of branded tomatoes can cost you £1.20. A tin of value ones costs 35p. If you are cooking food from scratch those are just building blocks in your meal anyway. Nobody’s going to notice if they are handpicked, vine ripened tomatoes.”
Into the basket went a bag of root vegetables, Basics tomatoes and tinned chickpeas. Monroe, who monitors prices constantly, noted that the price of the Basics kidney beans had recently risen 50 per cent to 27p overnight.
Back at her flat, Monroe showed me into the tiny galley lined with mirrored mosaic tiles that she calls “my disco kitchen”. The cats, Miliband and Harriet (named after the Labour leader and his deputy) prowled around expectantly while she set to puréeing chickpeas for falafel, stirring up a simmering root vegetable tagine and whizzing up a deep red tomato and haricot soup with fierce competence.
It is hard to imagine her doing anything with less than an awe-inspiring energy, and the past two years have been a remarkable rollercoaster from comfortable anonymity, via the breadline, to local – and now fledgling social media – celebrity.
Back in 2011 Jack had a £27,000-a-year job she loved in a fire service call centre, a nice flat and a regular organic veg box. But after the birth of her son nearly three years ago, she was unable to negotiate flexible working or a jobshare for the changing pattern of her shift work. Her parents, who live a few miles away, helped out initially, but with the commute it proved unsustainable.
“It’s not what I had a child for, to give him 16-hour days foisted on other people.”
She left the fire service at the end of 2011 and embarked on a job search. “I applied for everything that came up, but there’s a lack of common courtesy these days. You don’t even get an email back saying, ‘Thank you for your application but you’ve been unsuccessful’.” She amassed an email folder of more than 300 applications, “which don’t include the ones I sent by post, or all the CVs I dropped off.”
She moved to a cheaper flat and signed on for benefits, but money was tight and she fell into debt. Johnny’s dad, whom she was no longer with at the time of the birth is, she says, “a brilliant father”. But he was not able to help support them. She sold her car, and regularly went to bed hungry. Then last year, desperate, she held a house sale, inviting locals in to buy everything she owned, including the television and her favourite chair.
Now her sunny flat is furnished with a few leftovers from the sale (“No one wanted the bed,” she told me), along with cast-offs from friends, and items she has found in skips. Not that you would know. Jack, it seems, is true to her name. There was an old sewing machine by the window, and one of Johnny’s baby shawls was being made into a cushion. Monroe makes patchwork quilts from old clothes, turns buttons into cufflinks and works cross-stitch pictures which she sells through her Bread and Jam Foundation to raise money for local charities. “Make do and mend” is not so much a stricture as a philosophy to Monroe.
How does she feel about the success of the blog and the recipes? “The circumstances that triggered it weren’t brilliant, so it’s nice that something good came out of it,” she says. The new local fame is more disconcerting. People check her shopping basket in the supermarket for extravagances, and she has had threatening phone calls after writing that the Union Jack needed reclaiming from Right-wing groups.
When Johnny arrived back from nursery – a gorgeous curly haired blond who chattered away merrily as he tucked into the homemade herb bread and tagine in Jack’s book-lined sitting room. ”He eats everything because that’s what he’s given,” said Monroe, adding tartly: “Some children are very indulged.”
Mind you, the food is very fine, and it’s also healthy. Monroe keeps oil to a minimum, and key ingredients are cheap tinned vegetables, root vegetables and pulses, enlivened with clever spicing and herbs from her carefully tended pots. The cost of our lunch was less than 50p each.
There’s rarely any meat – the budget doesn’t allow it – and Monroe is experimenting with going vegan for Lent. She does miss it though. “I have a tax rebate due. When it comes I’ll get a pork belly.” Not that there are no treats. As well as bread, made with ordinary plain flour, there are occasional white chocolate and peanut butter cornflake cakes for Johnny.
The secret of cheap but healthy eating is to cook from scratch, she tells me. “Most of my recipes take 15 or 20 minutes. It’s easy to do and it’s significantly cheaper than picking up a ready meal that you have to cook for 30 minutes in the oven anyway.” But with some ready meals selling for £1, surely they are cheaper? “No. My chickpea tagine is 24p a portion. Besides, I don’t know what’s in that lasagne or whatever. This way I know exactly what my son is eating.”
Life is still pretty up and down for Monroe, even though finances are carefully monitored with a spreadsheet on the laptop she has borrowed from a friend. Reading her blog a few days later I find that she has had to take her son out of nursery as she can’t afford the fees. But then she messages me to tell me she has finally landed a job as a reporter for the local paper. Ever cautious, she intends to stick to her food budget. After all, she said that none of her friends ever turn down an invitation to eat at the flat. Maybe she could ask Helen Goodman along?”
Xanthe Clay. The Telegraph, Saturday 2nd March 2013.
Very enjoyable article. Well done and thanks for posting! Must try some of your recipes, they sound absolutely delicious …
I just love your blog and am now following religiously!
i am a mother of five and my income has fluctuated from meagre to comfortably off on and off due to various events many times. I although being a young mother in the eighties with two young children was similar to you. cooked from scratch and budgeted well. rice and stir fried vegetables were commonplace with a touch of soy or worcester to give them oomph lol. and potatoes were a popular item too. in many guises. you should write a book, if you havent already to teach not only people on a budget how to cook healthy food , which is often the cheapest, from scratch. i know many so called welloff children and parents who could do with this advice too. also, your use of other cheap items is well noted, eg shampoo etc. we have all been suckered into consumerism unecessary. ie brand names etc, feeding the big companies. i like to make my own air refresheners with oils etc. and even wipes can be made and washed . Entertainment can be a lovely walk and a game of ball of some kind in the park. much nicer than lots of expensive entertainment in my opinion and healthier too.
However, would like to know, has your standard if you like, risen and do you now buy branded goods as i understand you now are in work. just out of curiosity, as i find, myself, that i tended to veer into spending more money when it was available, and i try not to do this and save the money instead. good luck
It’s a very good question! Although I’m now in work, I’ve largely stuck to my old habits. I do buy conditioner now for my hair, but it’s the 40p stuff. I still use 35p disinfectant watered down to clean everything with, and 29p bleach the same. I still use the same 1.25kg bag of veg to base my meals around. I still use the same washing powder at £1.44. I guess these habits will stay with me now as I’ve been living this way for so long, I can’t imagine being wasteful over something like scented washing up liquid any more. I’m trying to think of something that’s changed or that I spend money on now, and I can’t. I was able to buy my son a birthday present last Sunday, and a cake – where at christmas I ended up at my mums because I had nothing, and didn’t buy him anything because I couldn’t. I guess that’s the difference.
yes, i find that i cannot now spend as much as i used to on organic food, which often went wasted as i ate out a lot too, I cannot justify the cost, as the food at home is always nicer as its home cooked and much cheaper. also, no more new cars for me, my seven year old one takes me to the same places lol and is just parked outside every day in exactly the same manner as my new ones which i incidentally had to sell to finish work on my house. We arent unrecognisable for using own brand shampoos etc or value brands in household goods or food. that marketing man has a lot to answer for. it is experiences that count in life, not material unecessaries. i am trying to teach my children this value,as i feel it will stand them in good stead ad not be a slave to consumerism.i had to learn the hard way, like yourself, but i feel more freedom somehow for not getting into the trap of soending for contentment, which it very rarely brings.
sorry for typos, rushing, that was spending not soending
Brilliant , it can be done . I did it 15 years ago when I was on my own with two children working 4 days a week . ! A friend and myself were going to write a book on 100 ways to cook mince , turkey and beef !! We didn’t go out for meals , we drank water and savers squash . No biscuits , crisps etc . We were all fit and well and did not suffer at all . Our weekly food bill was £20.00 a week .
When we were actualy in a position to buy non saver food , the children didn’t like it !!
They still appreciate having a pudding when out ! But alwAys ask first .
I too asked friends for supper , and they brought the wine .
I think other people and friends find this situations more difficult to deal with than yourself .
Well done , people would be less obese and fitter if they copied this example .
Great article by the way. We too dont really snack much anymore. We also dislike eating out as its just not worth the money so on a recent day out we bought a loaf and some tuna in a pouch and made sandwiches and ate it by the sea in our rented car (cost of which was a gift from mum to get us a day trip before baby comes)
I’m inspired by your story and pluckiness in making things work. I was wondering – have you looked into making your new social media celebrity more profitable? For example, ads on this blog. After all some bloggers make their living off ads, and you write so well, I have no doubt that your readership will continue to grow.
Even though I despise your political leanings I wish you all the best for you and your kid. You sound like a great mother!
Hello Jack, I so enjoyed listening to you on Breakfast TV the other morning. Well done on all you have achieved and for helping so many other people. Can you tell me how I look at your blog? I have just read messages which follow some of your recipes. Is this it? With kind regards Isabel
Very impressive – an inspirational woman.