Feeding your family for $17 a week

Jack Monroe with her son. Image via twitter.com/MsJackMonroe/Jack Monroe.

Jack Monroe with her son. Image via twitter.com/MsJackMonroe/Jack Monroe.

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.

One of Jack Monroe's favourite recipes,  Mama Jack's Best Ever Chilli. Image via twitter.com/MsJackMonroe/Jack Monroe.

One of Jack Monroe's favourite recipes, Mama Jack's Best Ever Chilli. Image via twitter.com/MsJackMonroe/Jack Monroe.

“I was a bit sick of seeing single mums and people who are unemployed portrayed badly,” says Monroe.

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“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.”

22 comments

  • I've just checked out Jack's website and it's truly amazing. Normally I'm not a big fan of chickpeas and the like but her recipes make very simple fare look delicious. Better yet, the recipes are highly practical, quick and easy to make - not like one austerity blogger I recall who insisted on baking your own bread every day from scratch. So impressed with this young woman and I'm sure we'll be hearing a lot from her in the future!

    Commenter
    Red Pony
    Date and time
    September 12, 2013, 9:53AM
    • Whenever I see articles about food and poverty, it's inevitably mentioned that meat is expensive (and it is, relative to other sources of protein). As people who are happy to reduce their meat consumption, we put a tin of chickpeas into anything that can take it - our chicken curry (which serves six) is made with one chicken fillet.

      Commenter
      bornagirl
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      September 12, 2013, 10:32AM
    • Kidney beans or black beans go great with any sort of mexican food or mince, I find them quite tasty as well and it reduces the cost compared to using meat alone.

      Commenter
      Hurrow
      Date and time
      September 12, 2013, 11:59AM
    • Well done on this article & the concepts behind.
      This is the kind of stuff the government should be helping with ... helping educated people in ways of essential living.
      Free courses should be provided for lower income families to help them meet essential dietary demands on tight budgets, they should also be educating about the minefield of products, services & essentials in life such as: vehicle affairs/operation, insurance matters, health & wellbeing matters, how to live sustainably & cheaply or simply, how to cut down your environmental footprint, energy efficiency & value for money concepts.
      Instead the government wants to up the cost of education & cut back on courses offered & steer people into mainstream work areas (so they become a cash flow positive entity).
      Seriously enough is enough ...
      Life isn't all about money & every essential service producing profit ...
      Maybe our basic education also needs an overhaul to actually teach essential life matters rather than overloading kids with stuff they may never need ... then let the kids branch into their narrowed down field which can then lead them to a more specific career choice or chose field.
      If we want all our kids to work in Bunning & Maccers or dead end jobs, we are sure going about it the right way.
      Its incredible how some of the most basic, essential things in life, many people have to learn the hard way or never learn .....
      We should judge our society by how the least fortunate are coping, not by how well our elite are manipulating our system. :)

      Commenter
      Yuppy
      Location
      Yuppy Ville
      Date and time
      September 12, 2013, 12:17PM
  • At one stage, I talked with a local Emergency Relief Office about starting classes to teach basic cooking skills. They hand out food vouchers for the local shops, but if the recipients have never been taught how to make good purchasing decisions, and how to cook simple food from basic ingredients, it is a waste. I was told that most of the recipients of food vouchers would not be interested in learning these skills anyway. I hope that this blog and the cookbook to come can make a difference to some people. Maybe the on.line style of the blog is less confronting than going to an actual class. Well done.

    Commenter
    Mum
    Date and time
    September 12, 2013, 10:25AM
    • Yes, I have been in the same boat as Jack. I had THREE kids to feed, clothe etc though. I also had a serious illness to deal with. Here in Australia it is nigh near impossible to get food for $17 a week and still be healthy. If you look at her photo you can see her neck is swollen. Thyroid issues there. I wonder if she is aware of that? I looked at her blog and she is now engaged to her best friend and is no longer poor and hungry. Hats off to her. Sadly, I am still not employed, still not 'with a bloke' and still have ongoing health issues.
      I agree with the above commenter about getting recipients to learn to make food from scratch (MUCH cheaper to make than buy!) and learning about food choices. I make a ton of food when I get fresh and freeze it for meals. Only way to survive on a pension/benefit in these tough economic times.

      Commenter
      Mum who knows
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      September 12, 2013, 1:23PM
      • I would agree... I had a brief looks through the recipes on the web site. Most of the prices listed seem about 40 to 60% cheaper than what you would pay for similar products here in Australia. I think you might be able to push it and make due with $50 a week. I doubt it'd be very healthy in the long run though.

        This also depends on how old your kids are. Try and feed 15 year old growing boy a small bowl of pasta with mushy peas and cheese and see how far that gets you.

        Commenter
        steve
        Location
        sydney
        Date and time
        September 12, 2013, 3:29PM
      • You can diagnose a major condition from one photo? Impressive. With those skills you shouldn't be unemployed.

        The off-putting thing for me is that much of the food is canned. In my mind, fresh produce from the market is cheaper than supermarkets - but she's done her maths and established otherwise. She's also good at sprucing up dishes with spices/herbs - strong flavours can take away from the blandness in texture and lack of quantity of food.

        The Skint Foodie is another good blog about cheap eating - with the added focus of enjoying quality food (often a "feature" ingredient in an affordable way).

        Commenter
        Jelly
        Date and time
        September 12, 2013, 6:54PM
    • Hats off to her. Jack is part of a growing number of people who are blogging about living within ones means. I subscribe to a couple of them and the wisdom is right and it makes sense.
      The concept behind getting people off the couch and into the kitchen, rather than reaching for the frozen, pre-packaged muck, or worse; fast food is about how it is marketed to people and the encouragement to learn basic cooking skills. It would be great for the clients of such places that have the food banks and the like as it would also be a social occasion for the clients. It's a great idea.
      When I was in school, the most popular elective was home eco and the way the school handled enrollments into the class was by alphabetical order, so boys with a surname beginning with H was going to get in over a girl with surname beginning with T, which happened to me. Once you didn't have first year home eco, you couldn't get into second year, which is when the novelty had worn off for a vast number of the students.
      I don't know how it goes in state schools now, but that was our reality back then. I had to teach myself to cook when I left home and it was hard, but worthwhile.

      Commenter
      She's right, you know
      Date and time
      September 12, 2013, 2:36PM
      • Feeding 4 people (1 adult, 4 kids) for $17 a week in Australia? I very much doubt that. Even if you buy only vegetable that are in season $17 doesn't get you far. Let's say you do breakfeast with cheap porridge (aka oats) and milk. You'd be looking at about $6 for the milk and porridge alone. That leaves $1.6 a day for lunch and dinner. I'd love to hear how that works?

        Commenter
        steve
        Location
        sydney
        Date and time
        September 12, 2013, 3:25PM

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