“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.