Society, The Guardian, Thursday 6 June 2013.
Food poverty: ‘You think it doesn’t happen to normal people’
Jack Monroe’s A Girl Called Jack blog vividly charts her life on the breadline, from visits to the pawn shop to living on a £10 a week food budget. Policy makers should take note. By Patrick Butler.
The undoubted star turn at the food poverty meeting at the House of Commons this week was Jack Monroe, a 25 year old single Mum, prodigious blogger, austerity cook extraordinaire, and breadline veteran.
Jack had a good job, until she had to give it up for childcare reasons. She spent the next 16 months unemployed and on benefits, living hand to mouth, and dependent, in the end, on charity.
Her descriptions of her demoralising, mundane existence during that time were vivid and arresting: the one weetabix for her son’s breakfast, mashed with cold water; the trips to the pawn shop; the obsession with unplugging things (including the fridge) in case she was tempted to spend money she didn’t have on electricity.
She recalled how six months ago she was referred to a local food bank for help:
“I was attending a group for the single mums on a Wednesday, and only went for the free lunch. One of the ladies noticed that me and my son always had seconds and thirds. She asked me if I was ok but I lied and told her I was fine. Because that’s the trouble, when you have got your collar bone jutting out of the two jumpers you wear to keep yourself warm, your cheekbones poking out and your son’s an absolute state: you tell everyone you’re fine, because you don’t want him taken into care.”
Despite her doubts, one Tuesday morning she turned up there:
” I joined a queue about 60 deep of other mothers with push chairs and small starving children outside a community centre and I waited an hour for five tins of beans and a bag of nappies.”
This triggered a discomforting realisation:
“You can’t just walk up to a food bank. You have to be referred to one. Someone has to physically look at you and say you are that desperate you need some free food or otherwise things might go horribly, horribly wrong.”
This was a shock: it wasn’t supposed to happen to people like her.
“I had a £27 grand a year job. I’ve not been brought up on benefits and a tracksuit watching Jeremy Kyle. I’m a middle class, well educated young woman who fell a bit by the way side. You think it doesn’t happen to normal people, and you think we are all scumbags, eating burgers and watching day time TV. It can happen to anyone.”
Throughout her time on the dole Jack wrote a blog, A Girl called Jack, which juxtaposed her observations of breadline life with ingenious recipes, and tips on how to eke out a food budget of £10 a week. The blog became cult reading, and the food posts won her prizes, plaudits and a Penguin book deal. She now has a job as a reporter on her local paper in Southend.
Her insights on how to reform the welfare system are required reading, suffused as they are with the kind of “service user” insight that the system’s designers and putative reformers, and most of the media commentators on the issue for that matter, do not have.
Perhaps her most valuable insight, however, (and the one most frequently ignored by policy makers), is this, made as she reflected on her experiences using a food bank:
“To paraphrase Desmond Tutu, there comes a point where you have to stop pulling people out of the river and you have to walk upstream and find out why the hell they’re falling in.”
(Thanks to Jonny Butterworth of Just Fair for the audio file)
Follow me on Twitter :@MsJackMonroe