Lily Barclay catches up with Jack Monroe to talk about modern food poverty, hero ingredients and the public’s reaction to her work.
Jack Monroe is a cookery book author, recipe writer and journalist. Her article Hunger Hurts depicted her life living on the poverty line with her toddler son. She is famous for producing recipes that enabled her to live off a food budget of £10 a week.
How did you come to start your food blog ‘A Girl Called Jack’?
Well it didn’t start off as a food blog, ironically, it started off as a local politics blog. A local Conservative councillor was on the front page of the paper saying that drug addicts and single mothers are ruining the town. I wrote a response to the paper that eventually resulted in me writing a blog about the ins and outs of Southend Council. As the blog became more personal and as I really hit rock bottom, I started to write about food as well. The first recipe I wrote was for carrot & cumin burgers – which I’d just thrown together with some stuff that was in my cupboard and it received 10 times more hits than the most popular blog I had on the website.
I was outraged because I thought people care more about my dinner than they do about my politics. It was then that it went viral and people from the Telegraph got in touch and invited themselves over for lunch. I was thinking, what has happened, I’d just stuck a couple of recipes up, but it hasn’t stopped since.
What advice would you give to people who are sticking to a limited food budget?
Firstly I always say to people to look where else you are spending money. People can find it quite surprising and I did myself. People get used to buying certain brands, if you just looked in your cupboard and totted up the difference if you started buying the basic products for things like shampoo, conditioner, washing up liquids then you can start transferring those costs to your food budget.
But secondly I’ve got a bit of a formula I use when I food shop, and that is to always shop protein and vegetable first because carbs are really cheap. You can pick up a bag of rice for 40p or 500g of pasta for 39p. So I’d look at vegetables first and then cheap tins of sardines, herring roe, fish paste, but also pulses, kidney beans, lentils, basic baked beans and then rinse the sauce off and you have plain white beans.
What is achievable on a £10 weekly budget?
I kept it up for about a year and actually found the longer you do it the easier it gets because you build up your store cupboards. But I’m quite happy living mainly on a vegetarian diet, like falafels, vegetable curries, vegetable tagine, where a lot of people might not be. But I also realise that living on a largely vegan diet would present long-term health problems if not approached in the right way. To do it sustainably and to do it well would take a gigantic amount of energy, research, knowledge and time.
What do you think needs to happen for families and people on lower incomes to gain more access to healthy food?
I think there are two different types of food poverty, there is not having enough money to buy food but there is also a poverty of food education. People don’t know how to cook basic meals from scratch for themselves and their families. They don’t know how to make a pasta sauce or that it’s cheaper to make it yourself, so end up buying it from the supermarket instead.
I get messages from people saying that their children in economics classes are designing boxes for airline meals or dissecting things that are best left for a biology class. They need to learn how to make a bread dough, shortcrust pastry, pasta sauces and how to make something from scratch from the stuff that is left at the back of the cupboards.
You can overhaul the education system but there is still a lost generation of people growing up without basic food knowledge. People print out my recipes and hand them out at food banks because they are the kinds of things that can be made from food bank staples. But I feel like I want to do more, but I don’t know how to put that more into action.
How have you found the public’s reaction to your recipes and writing?
Mostly positive but I do get some criticism for what I do. It’s hard because I never put myself on a pedestal and said that people should live how I live, I just started to write about my life and it generated an interest.
I never said anyone should have to live off a food budget of £10 a week. As one of the richest countries in the world I think it’s disgusting that so many people have so little left for food after all their other outgoings. But equally I know you have people in tight spots who use my recipes to get them through to pay day at the end of the month. People have said that I can’t know what it’s like to be poor because I went to a Grammar School, but I couldn’t eat my GCSE certificates.
I have one follower on Twitter who is disabled and I have gone through a few recipes with her and adapted them to be made in the microwave and on the one hob she has. She can’t chop so we’ve also worked around that. I get hundreds of messages from people every week who say my recipes have really helped them and their families, and that they love cooking them. When I wake up to death threats and abusive message it is a bit hurtful. But 99% of the stuff I receive is lovely and that means I get up in the morning and I feel like I’m doing something right.
What’s your top tip for keeping food costs down?
I’ve tried to think of as many different things I can do with what I call hero ingredients, which are my staples. In one week if I have a can of kidney beans I will use half for burgers and then half for soup. Or for chickpeas I’ll put half a tin in a stew and then make falafels out of the other half. So you are not eating the same thing all the time.
If I’ve got something like a curry that needs a long cooking time for the flavour to develop, then instead of leaving the gas running for an hour, I’ll just cook the vegetables through that I’m going to use and then put it on the back of the oven for an hour to develop its flavour. Then I’ll blast it through before I serve it.
Who are your biggest food influences?
Nigel Slater, because I love his simplicity and I love how clearly passionate about food he is. He understands food and takes really simple, honest ingredients and turns them into really great food.
One of the first cookbooks I bought myself was Gastronomy Economy by Allegra McEvedy. She really installed in me the fundamentals that you can make leftovers good, you can take one ingredient and make it go into three meals. And that you can make cooking fun, even when its simple ingredients and you’re on a budget.
If you could only make one recipe again what would it be?
My death row dinner would have to be my homemade Mamma Jack’s chilli, I love it. That with a dollop of natural yogurt and some white fluffy rice. It doesn’t last very long in my house, at the bottom of my recipe it says put it in a pitta bread for tomorrow’s lunch, but I’ve never quite managed it.
What’s your guiltiest food pleasure?
Two of my staple ingredients in my original cheap food shop were peanut butter and natural yogurt and I discovered that if you mixed the two together and stick them in the freezer it makes frozen peanut butter yogurt. Add a melted square of white chocolate to it as well and it makes it really sweet.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m just going to see where the wind takes me. I’ve been approached by a lot of TV companies but to be perfectly honest the thought sends me running to the hills. I want to concentrate on tackling food poverty and especially the education side of things. Whatever good opportunities present themselves to me to do that, I’ll take them with both hands.
Do you have any top tips for cooking on a budget? Share them in the comments below.
Jack Monroe’s first cookbook ‘A Girl Called Jack’ has been published by Penguin. She is also the author of the blog ‘A Girl Called Jack’.