Jack Monroe: a woman to be reckoned with

Jack May 4 December 2014

Jack Monroe visited the Union Society on Sunday as part of the Cambridge Literary Festival, appearing in conversation with Anna Whitelock. Monroe is known by some for her blog, ‘A Girl Called Jack’, her column in The Guardian and her low-budget recipes. However, Monroe isn’t your usual celebrity chef; her blog posts about chickpea curry and lentil dhal have always been interspersed with comment and opinion pieces about politics, food banks and her experiences of living on the breadline.

Monroe left her job in the fire service in 2012, after finding it impossible to both care for her 18 month-old son as a single parent and work long night shifts. Monroe’s interest in politics was sparked soon after, when she wrote an article in response to a local Southend Conservative MP who had complained that “druggies, drunks and single mums” were spoiling the high street. She joked at the Union that since becoming unemployed, she had started to get involved in local politics, attending council meetings and writing about them on her blog or in the local paper.

As she has gained prominence in the public eye over the last two years, Monroe has been vocal about food poverty in particular, and the widening of the inequality gap in general. In 2013, she launched a petition alongside the Trussell Trust (the UK’s largest network of food banks) and the Unite union, calling for a debate in the House of Commons on food banks. She labelled the drastic increase in the use of food banks a “disgrace”, symptomatic of a society which has been failed by austerity policies. Just last month, the Trussell Trust reported that the number of people being referred to a food bank has risen by 38 per cent over the past year – a sign that government debate needs to be followed up by action.

As the new poster girl for Sainsbury’s ‘Love Your Roast’ campaign, Monroe has been referred to as “the face of austerity Britain”. Monroe has written in heart-wrenching detail about her daily struggles of living below the poverty line. Monitoring your expenses down to the pennies, making the most of every last scrap of turkey – Sainsbury’s is ditching the conventional celebrity chef for a figure more in tune with the times.

Far from Jamie Oliver’s ‘happy chappy’ persona, Monroe represents an increasingly precarious segment of the British population whose voices are unrepresented or silenced and often stigmatised. Underlying much of Monroe’s rhetoric is a critique of changes to the welfare system, but also a backlash against the negative stereotyping of benefit claimants as some kind of uneducated, scrounging underclass.

Monroe has been vocal about her experiences, and in campaigning to alleviate poverty; she has contributed to the foregrounding of food poverty as an urgent issue that needs tackling and shifted attention to the politics of food which often plays out behind closed doors. Monroe also represents the underrepresented: as a woman and a mother; as a lesbian and a single parent; and as someone who has lived the cruel reality of policies. She speaks and writes with passion and emotion, yet this never gets in the way of clear rationale behind her argument: “Austerity is not a medicine; it is a cancer”. The Conservatives would do well to inject a little more passion – or perhaps more importantly, compassion – into their own politics.

We need more women like Monroe in politics. Sadly, the reality is that politics does not accommodate such individuals – single mothers with children, women championing causes that affect an oppressed majority. Monroe admitted: “I wouldn’t fit in [in Parliament].” Jack Monroe is not just a woman to be reckoned with, she’s someone to listen to, and we need to make more room for others like her.