2014 > UK > Poverty (I)
Jack Monroe, a single mother
with a blog,
has become an emblem of modern
poverty in Britain.
Andrew Testa for The New York
From Hunger to Fame, With
a Shoestring Menu
Jack Monroe Has Become Britain’s Austerity Celebrity
14 January 2014
History > 2014 > UK > Economy (I)
Bishops blame David Cameron
for food bank crisis
Benefit system failings under fire
from Church leaders who claim PM's policies
are 'responsible for half of food aid cases'
Thursday 20 February 2014
Chief political correspondent
This article appeared on p2 of the Main section section
of the Guardian on Thursday 20 February 2014.
It was published on the Guardian website
at 01.26 GMT on Thursday 20 February 2014.
It was last modified at 09.17 GMT
on Thursday 20 February 2014.
David Cameron has been blamed by 27 Anglican bishops for
creating a "national crisis" which has seen 500,000 people visit food banks
since Easter last year.
In one of the most significant political interventions by leading members of the
Church of England since the Faith in the City report in 1985, 25 of its bishops
have blamed "cutbacks to and failures in the benefit system" for forcing people
to use food banks. They are joined by two bishops from the Church in Wales, 14
Methodist districts chairs and two Quakers.
In an open letter published in the Daily Mirror on Thursday, the faith leaders
write: "We must, as a society, face up to the fact that over half of people
using food banks have been put in that situation by cutbacks to and failures in
the benefit system, whether it be payment delays or punitive sanctions."
The intervention, part of the End Hunger Fast campaign which will be launched at
the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday on 5 March, follows the description of the
government's welfare reforms as a disgrace by the head of the Roman Catholic
Church in England and Wales, Vincent Nichols.
The Anglican bishops express astonishment that people can be going hungry in the
world's seventh richest country. They say that 500,000 people have visited food
banks since Easter last year, 5,500 have been admitted to hospital with
malnutrition and 20% of mothers are "skipping meals to better feed their
The bishops write: "We often hear talk of hard choices. Surely few can be harder
than that faced by the tens of thousands of older people who must 'heat or eat'
each winter, harder than those faced by families whose wages have stayed flat
while food prices have gone up 30% in just five years. Yet beyond even this we
must, as a society, face up to the fact that over half of people using food
banks have been put in that situation by cutbacks to and failures in the benefit
system, whether it be payment delays or punitive sanctions."
The bishops note that Lent will mark the beginning of the Christian tradition of
fasting at a time when half a million people are going hungry. They write: "We
urge those of all faith and none, people of good conscience, to join with us.
There is an acute moral imperative to act. Hundreds of thousands of people are
doing so already, as they set up and support food banks across the UK. But this
is a national crisis, and one we must rise to. We call on government to do its
part: acting to investigate food markets that are failing, to make sure that
work pays, and to ensure that the welfare system provides a robust last line of
defence against hunger."
Rachel Reeves, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said: "This letter should
be a wake-up call to David Cameron. His government's policies are making life
harder for families with a cost-of-living crisis making workers £1600 worse off
and the bedroom tax forcing hundreds of thousands to food banks. This Tory-led
government's welfare reforms have penalised, rather than helped, those doing the
The letter will be seen as a significant political intervention because the
bishops directly blame the government's cuts for welfare cuts. Unlike the Faith
in the City report, which was launched by the late Archbishop of Canterbury
Robert Runcie, the letter is not a formal Church of England initiative.
Bishops blame David Cameron for food bank
From Hunger to Fame,
Monroe Has Become
Britain’s Austerity Celebrity
The New York Times
SOUTHEND-ON-SEA, England — First she stopped heating her apartment, putting
furniture in front of the radiators to try to forget they were there. She
unscrewed most of the light bulbs, turned off the hot water, and sold her
iPhone, her watch, her television and even her curtains to feed herself and her
Then she wrote about it in a blog post titled “Hunger Hurts” that soon spread
widely. “Poverty is the sinking feeling when your small boy finishes his one
Weetabix and says, ‘More, Mummy, bread and jam please, Mummy,’ ” she wrote, “as
you’re wondering whether to take the TV or the guitar to the pawnshop first, and
how to tell him that there is no bread or jam.”
Jack Monroe, a 25-year-old single mother who changed her name from Melissa
because “I’m just not a Melissa,” is an unlikely ambassador for the growing
ranks of Britain’s poor — and now one with a $40,000 book contract. Her sudden
slide into poverty two years ago and her plucky online diary, A Girl Called
Jack, chronicling the reality of life on the bread line have turned her into a
celebrity in Britain. She is now courted by politicians, charities and even
supermarket chains, and people regularly ask for her autograph.
Multimedia Feature: Out of Europe’s Long Jobs Crisis, Voices of the Young
Ms. Monroe, who left school at 16, has more than 31,000 followers on Twitter and
now writes a weekly food column for the newspaper The Guardian, featuring
recipes costing less than one pound ($1.64) a person. Her austerity cookbook is
due out in February. More than once has she been told that she does not really
“My parents are still together, they’ve always worked, I’ve always worked, I had
a decent well-paid job,” Ms. Monroe said one recent morning in the kitchen of
her new apartment, which has two bedrooms. “But within the space of six months I
found myself going to bed hungry.” For most of 2012, she says, she had about $12
a week for food.
There is no simple tale here about a broken home, bad schools, drugs or racial
prejudice, no familiarity in her path into poverty. As one of her neighbors in
this seaside town in southern England put it, “She could be anybody’s daughter.”
Her story has made her an emblem in the debate about the future of the welfare
state, which the government of Prime Minister David Cameron, a Conservative, has
been trying to slim down.
SINCE coming to power in 2010, Mr. Cameron has overseen nearly $100 billion in
welfare and spending cuts, with more in the pipeline. Charities like the
Trussell Trust, which runs 400 food banks, say half a million people relied on
food aid in the final eight months of last year, three times as many as in 2012.
The Guardian called Ms. Monroe “the face of modern poverty,” proof that in
post-financial crisis Britain neither the job market, which is sluggish, nor the
benefit system, which is shrinking, can be relied upon to maintain a basic
The opposition Labour Party was quick to recruit her for a campaign against high
energy prices. The charity Oxfam just took her to Tanzania to visit one of their
projects, and the supermarket chain Sainsbury’s, long partial to featuring
celebrity chefs with expensive tastes, picked her for a television piece on how
to cook with Christmas leftovers.
But others, on the right, dismiss her as a fake or simply as “The Guardian’s
favorite poor person.” In a scathing piece last fall that referred to her as a
“poster girl of Welfare Britain,” Richard Littlejohn at the pro-Conservative
Daily Mail mocked her kale pesto pasta recipe for 48 pence, about 80 cents, a
“You couldn’t make it up,” Mr. Littlejohn wrote. “If I’d set out to compose a
spoof Guardian food column aimed at those living in ‘poverty,’ I couldn’t have
done any better.”
Ms. Monroe insists that she is “nobody’s paid face.” She turned down a lucrative
offer from Tesco, another grocery giant. When the upmarket grocer Waitrose
airbrushed out her tattoos in a photo they published with a guest column last
year, she posted an indignant comment on Twitter.
She liked Sainsbury’s leftovers campaign, and that is where she has always
shopped and priced her recipes, she said. She says she is giving most of her fee
to Oxfam, food banks and a local shelter, keeping only $2,600, the equivalent of
a living wage for the six-week running time of the campaign.
For all her celebrity, she still lives modestly, keeping to a monthly budget of
around $2,000 and trying to save a similar amount. Her benefits were stopped in
May when the BBC publicized her book contract, briefly sending her back into a
panic because she had yet to receive any money (she has since been paid about
$16,500). She says she now earns about $325 a week from her column and freelance
Growing up, Ms. Monroe never thought of herself as poor. Her father was a
firefighter, and over the years her parents, who still own a small house in a
neighboring town, took in around 80 foster children alongside her and her older
brother. She passed the entrance exam for a selective public high school, but
struggled there and dropped out when she was 16, working in shops and
restaurants until she got a job as an emergency dispatcher, where she eventually
made $44,000 a year, just over the average income in Britain.
November 2011, she suddenly found herself out of a job. Returning from maternity
leave, she asked to be taken off the night shift because of difficulty finding
child care. When that was denied, she felt she had no choice but to quit.
In the months that followed, Ms. Monroe fell into a spiral of mounting debt and
growing panic. Bills piled up. Lacking money for a deposit, she could not afford
to move to a cheaper apartment.
Often, there was little food left over for her. In her blog she wrote: “Last
night when I opened my fridge to find some leftover tomato pasta, an onion, and
a knob of stem ginger, I gave the pasta to my boy and went to bed hungry with a
pot of homemade ginger tea to ease the stomach pains.”
Her son would ask: Why aren’t you eating, Mummy?
“I’m not hungry,” she would reply, praying that he would leave the crust of his
For eight months, she did not tell anyone. There was shame and a residual hope
that one of the 300 job applications typed out on her mobile phone would come
through. Above all, there was the fear that child services would take away her
boy. “He was the reason I was still getting up in the morning,” she said. “A
cuddle on the sofa is free, reading a story is free. I didn’t want to lose him.”
WHEN she could no longer afford a haircut, she told her friends that she was
growing it out. She kept her apartment tidy, her son’s clothes clean. “You
become really good at hiding things,” she said.
It was not until July 30, 2012, when she wrote “Hunger Hurts,” that she
officially came out as poor. Her parents dropped off bags of food and clothes,
and berated her for not telling them sooner. But with two young adopted children
to feed, they could only help so much. That August, Ms. Monroe had a sale,
parting with almost everything she had left, raising almost $3,300 to pay off
her debts and put down a deposit for a cheaper house share.
“Where is my dinosaur toy?” her son asked when he came back later from a day
with his father, who helps look after him.
“Mummy had a tidy-up,” she told him.
Ms. Monroe started cooking. Cooking and sharing her hard-times recipes. Mumma
Jack’s Best Ever Chilli costs 50 cents a person, Oh My God Dinner 45 cents. At
about 15 cents, the carrot-kidney bean burger is still a reader favorite.
As she settles into her new apartment, still modest but with a decent-size
kitchen, her priority is to make her son forget their hungry spell.
At 3, he has developed a quirk: He saves food. When she made mackerel fish cake
for lunch last week, he ate half of it and said he would have the rest for
dinner. “You don’t have to,” she said. But he insisted.
One day, she will show him her blog, she said. For now, she makes a point of
having meals together. “So he sees me eating,” she said.
A version of
this article appears in print on January 18, 2014,
on page A1 of
the New York edition with the headline:
From Hunger to
Fame, With a Shoestring Menu.
From Hunger to Fame, With a Shoestring Menu
Jack Monroe Has Become Britain’s Austerity Celebrity,