Today is exactly one year since I typed out, on my battered old Nokia, the words that have been reblogged and repeated in international news reports again and again and again over the last twelve months.
The post, entitled ‘Hunger Hurts’, starts with the line:
“Today has seen fourteen job applications go in…for care work, shop work, factory work, minimum wage work, any kind of work, because quite simply, this doesn’t work…”
I repeated the words in Parliament last month to a shocked, silent assembly:
“This morning, Small Boy had one of the last Weetabix, mashed with water, with a glass of tap water to wash it down with. Where’s mummy’s breakfast? He asks, all blue eyes and two year old concern. I tell him I’m not hungry, but the rumbling of my stomach calls me a liar. But these are the things that we do.”
Publicly falling apart at the seams, I continued:
“People ask me how I can be so strong.
People say to me that they admire my spirit.
Days like today, sitting on my son’s bed with a friend, numb and staring as I try to work out where the hell to go from here, I don’t feel strong. I don’t feel spirited. I just carry on.”
And I did. I carried on. Hunger Hurts was my turning point – the rock bottom that I hit, the night I decided to hold a big open house sale and sell everything that I could in my home to raise the money to clear my rent arrears. It’s the night I resigned myself to sacrificing everything I had in the way of material possessions, in order to keep four walls around me. I cannot read those words myself, without my stomach twisting, as I remember the cold bloody winter, sitting in a flat with no heating, the Christmas Day spent by myself because I realised my son would have a better time at his fathers than in a freezing cold flat with no tree and no presents – as I lay on my sofa without him and sobbed, alone.
Hunger Hurts is the most-read post on my blog to date, and as relevant today, as half a million people are reported to rely on food banks here in the seventh richest country in the world, and I urge you to read it and reread it until you can possibly comprehend what life is like for those half a million people – and those many, many more who do not receive the help that they so desperately need.
The timeline of events over the last twelve months has been a roller coaster, surreal as Xanthe Clay from the Telegraph came over for Morrocan-Not-A-Tagine for lunch, leading to the article My 49p Lunch With A Girl Called Jack. That article led in turn to a recipe book deal with Penguin, and subsequent appearances on Sky News, the BBC and ITV to talk about food and poverty. The Guardian described me last week as ‘The face of modern poverty’ – and indeed, I have been to the G8 summit, and spoken in Parliament on poverty issues. With that comes a public backlash, with hurtful comments about my weight, my appearance, my sexuality, my former landlords choice of decor, my parenting – as some people forget I am a person, and I hurt, and I feel, and I cry, too.
I also moved from my two bedroom flat, into one bedroom in a house I share with five people. I tuck a mattress under Small Boy’s single bed, and heave it out at the end of the day. Sharing a bedroom with a three year old is an interesting experience – but I tell myself that it isn’t forever.
I no longer claim Housing Benefit – the payments were suspended when news of my book deal reached the Housing Benefit department at the council – before any payment from my publisher hit my bank account. So I moved, to somewhere half the price, for some sort of security, at last. Less than ideal circumstances, but security all the same.
And for those that regularly ask me – yes, I still spend around £10 a week on my food shop. I’m learning to indulge again – but indulgence for me these days is a jar of black olives, or some (value range) salted cashews – I think once you learn how to eat great food on a low budget, it’s impossible to go back to spending £50 a week on food again.
Although my circumstances have changed somewhat in the past year – I have a job, am self employed, and a recipe book deal – I cannot put down the mantle and stop campaigning, or forget where I have come from. I am an ambassador for Child Poverty Action Group, and I have raised over £6,000 for charity this year through two extremely personal challenges, sleeping rough in a car park for the YMCA in March, and Living Below The Line for Oxfam in June.
Regular readers will be able to recite that closing sentence – as true today for half a million families in the UK as it was for me, typing through angry tears on the 30th July last year, that poverty isn’t just having no heating, or not quite enough food, or unplugging your fridge and turning your hot water off… 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 trying to work out how to carry the TV and the guitar to the pawn shop, and how to tell him that there is no bread and jam.
A year ago, I was angry about my personal circumstances.
Now i’m angry about everyone else’s.
For those asking ‘what can I do to help?’ – well, donate something to your local food bank. Tins, nappies, baby formula, UHT milk, cereals, toiletries, pasta, rice, tinned fruit and vegetables… Volunteer at a children’s centre or a play group – I found the ‘free’ things to do with Small Boy were literally a lifeline to me when I had nothing to do in my day, no money, nothing to look forward to. Visit your local volunteer centre and see how you can help, someone, somewhere. Donate old clothes, shoes and blankets to your local homeless shelter. Don’t step over people in the street – give them the £3 you might have spent on a latte.
I almost have my happy ending. Almost. But hundreds of thousands of families in Britain are starving – and they don’t get a book deal, and they don’t get to roll onto the Sky News sofa and shout at politicians about how it is, so until Hunger Hurta becomes an antiquated, Dickensian fable of what life WAS like in quaintly-titled ‘Austerity Britain’, while Hunger Hurts is still true for just ONE family, let alone half a million, while people like Lord Freud can get away with pontificating on the ‘unnecessary’ nature of food banks, I must carry on. As an ambassador for Child Poverty Action Group, writing for Oxfam, raging against the machine, shouting at the rain, meeting with Government advisers and repeating again and again and again and again until they get it:
“Half a million people in the UK are relying on food handouts. Food banks are not the answer. They are a sticking plaster. There comes a time when you need to stop just pulling people out of the river. You need to go upstream, and find out why they’re falling in.”
Jack Monroe. Follow me on Twitter @MsJackMonroe. Find me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/agirlcalledjack
A Girl Called Jack is available to order here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/A-Girl-Called-Jack-Monroe/dp/0718178947