“I never saw myself as a food writer or a celebrity chef, it never even occurred to me.” Interview with Daily Life (Australia)
Feeding your family for $17 a week
NICOLE ELPHICK September 12, 2013
The meals chronicled on food blogger Jack Monroe’s popular website, A Girl Called Jack, would not be out of place on the menu of your closest gastro-pub. Carrot, cumin and kidney bean falafels with spiced tomato sauce, chicken and mandarin tagine, and mushroom, bacon and ale casserole are a few of the mouth-watering dishes listed. But the reasons behind the 25-year-old English single mum picking up a spatula are more economic than culinary.
Monroe had previously been employed in a £27,000 [$46,847] a year job in the Essex fire service (her old cookbooks during this time were full of fillet steak and duck breast). But she had to leave that job after finding it impossible to arrange childcare for her young son around her work schedule and having her request for flexible work conditions turned down.
When the blog began in February 2012 it was originally conceived as a political blog.
“I was a bit sick of seeing single mums and people who are unemployed portrayed badly,” says Monroe.
“Some local politicians had made some horrible comments about single parents in the local papers, so I started to go to council meetings to see who these people were that were running the town. As I was unemployed myself at the time, the blog quickly became more of a diary of looking for work as a single parent, difficulties in finding childcare and that eventually extended into what I was eating,” says Monroe.
Along the way she became the foremost face of austerity blogging, the increasingly visible community of bloggers giving an insight into the realities of living hand to mouth.
Some of her posts are simply heartbreaking, particularly Hunger Hurts, a 2012 post in which the dire consequences of an error in benefit payments show the almost impossible budgetary tightrope people on the breadline are balancing on. In it her then two-year-old son asks, “Where’s Mummy’s breakfast?” as he eats the very last of their Weet-Bix (mixed with tap water instead of milk) while she writes a list of what is left to pawn to make the rent payments.
At her worst point Monroe had no money to feed herself and her son, instead having to rely on food banks and her mother’s help to fill the pantry. “After that I started to budget and worked out that I had consistently about ten pounds [$17.35] a week left over so I just worked inside that.” The austerity cooking recipes that came about as a result are a testament to Monroe’s ingenuity and nutritional know-how (not to mention a wicked way with a kidney bean). Each dish is tagged with the cost per meal, some whole meals dipping as low as ten pence (that’s only 17c) a serve.
Her blog quickly gathered momentum with her delicious recipes and engaging writing style. Monroe now has over 13000 Twitter followers, 9000 plus Facebook Likes and even a publishing deal with Penguin for a cookbook due out in February 2014. However she remains gratefully surprised at the attention her blog has received.
“I still feel like I’m talking to the same ten people that used to read my blog back in the day when I used to write about Southend council politics,” says Monroe of the site that started as ‘a bit of a rant’. “I just got sick and tired of emailing my friends and moaning about how bad things were. So essentially I thought I’d email the world instead… and the world sat up and listened.”
The blog is palate cleanser in an online world of Instagrammed latte art, a stark reminder that we aren’t all privileged. In fact Monroe started a Twitter campaign, #22mealsforacoffee, to directly address how easily those more fortunate could help. Monroe asked her followers to simply forego their daily caffeine fix and instead donate the money saved to a food bank figuring that based on her recipe costs those in poverty could potentially cook 22 meals for the price of a cup of coffee. Thousands of pounds were raised.
Monroe also explains that part of the problem for those on low incomes is the lack of education about how to cook in a cheap and healthy way, which leads to people reaching for frozen ready-made meals under the mistaken belief that they are cheaper and more convenient than cooking from scratch. While there has been a noticeable rise in reality TV cooking shows and celebrity chefs, they tend to portray decadent feasts and bottomless larders – not exactly useful lessons for those on a tight budget.
“I think cooking has been sold by cookery shows as unattainable or aspirational – it’s high gloss, it’s fancy kitchen equipment, it’s beautifully presented meals,” says Monroe.
“And actually cooking is a life skill. We teach our children to swim, but we don’t teach our children to cook. You’re going to be in a kitchen seven days a week, but how often do you go to the swimming pool?”
Her recipes aim to fill that gaping void for simple, cheap and healthy fare and her increasing following shows that it’s a need desperate to be filled.
Despite her growing profile Monroe remains admirably committed to continuing her anti-poverty activism and to providing a voice for those struggling.
“I’m considered more successful than I ever thought that I would be. I never saw myself as a food writer or a celebrity chef, it never even occurred to me. It would be quite easy to just put it all down and walk away, but I can’t,” says Monroe.
“Because I know that there are still people out there suffering at the hands of government policies. People living on 10 pounds a week in the sixth richest country in the world is obscene. So I don’t think I can step away just yet.”
Words by Nicole Elphick, published in Daily Life, 12th September 2013.