By KATRIN BENNHOLD
New York Times News Service
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 2-year-old son.
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.
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 1 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 “seem poor.”
“My parents are still together, they’ve always worked, I’ve always worked, I had a decent well-paid job,” 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 a popular pawn 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, 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 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 living standard.
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 head.
“You couldn’t make it up,” 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.”
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 Twitter comment.
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 writing.
Growing up, 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.
But in 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, 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 toast.
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, 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.
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.