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Jack Monroe Interview: The Budget-Busting Food Writer Talks To Parentdish

14/08/2014 16:58 | Updated 20 May 2015

Jack Monroe

Jack Monroe first came to fame in 2012 when her food blog, A Girl Called Jack, caught the attention of the national press.

Single mum to a toddler, Jack had lost her job with the Fire and Rescue Service and went from earning £27,000 a year to scraping by on benefits. She documented her struggles to feed herself and her son on just £10 a week on her blog, along with ingenious and delicious recipes that cost only pennies a portion.

The Guardian began featuring her recipes, and she has since become an outspoken voice in the national media calling attention to food poverty in the UK, as well as continuing to write about budget cooking.

She has just returned from a visit to Tanzania with hunger charity Oxfam, to learn about the work they are doing to support mothers there. Her first recipe book, A Girl Called Jack: 100 Delicious Budget Recipes, comes out February 27.

Parentdish spoke to her this week ahead of the book's launch.

First off, how was Tanzania?

Tanzania was very inspirational both food-wise and as a parent. No matter how bad things were over here, they were nothing compared to the realities of poverty in Africa. It was a really joyful trip but a really sad one at the same time.

It was heart-rending seeing women in situations not dissimilar to how my own situation had been, but for very different reasons and in a very different environment.

Your fame as a food writer seems to have come as a total surprise to you. Do you see yourself continuing in that career now?

I don't think anyone could have mapped out the way this has happened.

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I think I'll be around as long as there is a market for simple, basic, non-intimidating food.

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I've got a book coming out and I'm writing another one, but I'm not arrogant enough to think that now this is it for me. My column at The Guardian used to be somebody else's and I know that someone could quite easily come in and replace me.

You went from having a relatively stable job to what most people would consider real hardship. What was the most surprising thing you realised about life in poverty that people might not consider?

People don't realise what an emotional and mental impact it has on you. It's the day-in, day-out not having enough. You've got this bank of awful memories storing themselves up and you start to forget how it ever felt to be successful.

It's really hard to explain to people who haven't been there. I just did what I did and wrote about it and the public appear to have taken me to their hearts. I've got so much to thank my readership for. If there's anything I've learnt this year it's that people are inherently good.

One thing that makes you stand out from other food bloggers is your focus on politics (Jack's blog started as a commentary on local politics in her hometown of Southend). Has that changed now you've become nationally known for your food writing?

The politics side quieted down for a bit, then when I started writing about politics for the Mirror, some people were really surprised – they were like "She should stay in the kitchen!". But I've always talked about big issues.

My politics are food-related – food banks, the living wage, zero hour contracts – and my food is political. I like to encourage people to make ethical choices without compromising their budget. For me, that means free-range eggs and meat and fairtrade tea and coffee. People can't do everything, but if we all did a little bit it would make such a massive difference.

In the past you've talked about the bureaucracy that often complicates the benefits system. What reforms would you like to see to make life easier for struggling families?

We need to pay Housing Benefit monthly, not four-weekly. The benefit is calculated pro-rata for four weeks, so everyone's housing benefit is less than their rent - so for local councils to administer housing benefit monthly would help with cash flow problems for people on low incomes.

It's such a simple change, but I would wager that none of the people in charge of administering benefits have had to claim them - they wouldn't understand the difference that, in my case, £110 would have made.

Do you see that disconnect as one of the major problems with the current system?

Absolutely. There is a massive disconnect between somebody on £66,000 a year with all their expenses paid and somebody who's struggling to put food on the table, on low incomes or zero-hour contracts or benefits. I don't think there are many MPs who really, truly understand their constituents.

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Edwina Currie bangs on about people with tattoos using food banks – I'd like to point out that you can't sell your tattoos!

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It's reinforcing the Victorian idea of the deserving and undeserving poor. Someone said to me the other day – and it really hit home - that the more contempt you show people on benefits or low incomes, the more secure you make yourself feel that you will never be like them.

One common response from parents when they see a new recipe is "my toddler would never eat that". Did you ever have that trouble with Johnny (Jack's three-year-old son)? Any tips for getting round fussy eaters?

All kids are fussy eaters – they go through phases where they'll only eat red food or they just want to eat porridge. With fussy kids, the best thing to do is use what they do like and work around it.

For instance, I would make, say, a carrot, cumin and kidney bean soup and Johnny would be a bit 'hmmm'. So I would pour it over pasta, chuck some cheese on and bake it in the oven – I could put anything on pasta and he'd eat it.

And in my experience children like to emulate their parents, so I've always given Johnny what I've got for dinner with a grown-up plate and a grown-up knife and fork.

One of the big pet peeves for a lot of parents is how boring it can get to cook meals for a family every day. Do you have any ideas to spice up that routine and stay enthusiastic about food?

Depending on how old your children are, involve them in the process. My son Johnny, who's three, sits up on the counter and he can stir something or add a pinch of salt. My parents always sat us all down and we would get to choose a meal for the week and when it was 'your' dinner you had to help prepare it. And kids are a lot more likely to eat something if they feel that ownership over it.

The thing with my recipes is, I don't have hours to faff about in the kitchen. My recipes are all 15, 20 minute, chop it up and stick it in the oven. It doesn't matter if it overruns a bit because you can't get your kid out of the bath or whatever. It's home cooking, exactly what it should be.

Jack's book is out now in bookstores across the country. In the meantime, check out our sneak peek at a few of the great recipes featured in the collection:

Jack Monroe

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