A celebrity chef on $16 a week

How frugal meals turned a single mom into a foodie hero
Richard Cannon / Getty Images

The unwritten conceit of foodie life is that it isn’t cheap. If you’re regularly whipping up brie and bacon risotto, or carrot, cumin and kidney-bean burgers, financially, you must be okay. Except if you’re Jack Monroe, a single mother living in Southend, England. Then you have so little money, your weekly grocery budget for your toddler and yourself tops out at $16—and that risotto costs a remarkable 42 cents.

Through her almost-magical recipe ingenuity—and a bit of grocery-store math—Monroe, a 25-year-old blogger, is redefining what it means to eat poor, and earning foodie hero status in England. Her recipes won her an award from the upscale Fortnum & Mason grocers, and her fans include British food writer Nigel Slater.

Monroe was a fire-department phone operator before she left her $40,000-a-year job in 2011 when she couldn’t find child care. Living on benefits and unable to find steady work, she spiralled into poverty and debt. When welfare payments fell short of the bills, she’d miss meals and turn off the heat in her apartment. She sold her camera and iPhone. As an outlet, she started blogging on an old Nokia phone about local politics and poverty. One morning, her son Jonny looked up from a breakfast of a single Weetabix, mashed with a bit of water, and asked for more. Her housing cheque was $160 short that month. She was a week behind on rent.

It was the turning point. “I knew, if I could make food work for me and Jonny, I’d be holding our family together,” Monroe says. Family dinners were a staple of her own middle-class upbringing, and she loved to cook. She scrounged around her apartment for change and headed to the store. That week, she sold the entire contents of her home in a one-day garage sale and moved to a cheaper flat. She budgeted $16 a week for food.

On her blog, A Girl Called Jack, she posted cheap recipes and charted undulating grocery-store prices—she can rattle off costs of basket basics like an auctioneer (canned potatoes, for example, are cheaper than raw). A year later, she is a celebrity, a so-called “austerity chef,” purveyor of cheap, healthy and tasty meals for a culture divorced from cooking. Monroe serves sharp rebuttals to welfare stereotypes along with spiced potato soup (cost: 16 cents). She appears regularly on TV and radio shows and in the Guardian and Telegraph newspapers, offering recipes and commentary. Her readership (16,000 blog followers, 12,000 on Twitter) includes British aristocrats, grocery-chain bosses and food-bank frequenters. She’s addressed Parliament and attended a G8 summit. Her cookbook—published by Penguin and priced about the same as a week’s shop—comes out next year.

It will feature meals such as roasted zucchini and feta potato salad, and baked trout in tomato sauce with lemon and herb rice—written with a blend of invention and inspiration from chefs such as Slater and Nigella Lawson, but pared down, with “ingredients I can afford,” she says. “When you’ve only got a jar of fish paste in the cupboard and some yogourt in the fridge, you think, ‘I wonder, if I mix these together, what would it turn out like.’ ”

An idea based on Gordon Ramsay’s “posh” salmon mousse, a blend of salmon and cream, the dish sits on the same line Monroe straddles, between the glossy magazines and “fancy-pants gadgets” of foodie culture, and the 30 per cent of British families relying on benefits, who may barely afford budget grocery brands. While she scoffs at the “asafoetida and artichoke club” and recipes stocked with “impossible-to-find ingredients,” she also makes lavender sugar.

Not everyone’s convinced. She’s criticized for using too much canned food, or for being too fancy herself. But Monroe says she’s not a chef, nor is she glorifying austerity. She and her son share a reliably cheap room in a house, because only part of the $40,000 book-deal money has come through and most of it went to rent and debts. They remain on a $16-a-week food budget. She misses roast chicken, fresh out of the oven. “I haven’t had pork belly for so long now,” she says wistfully. “I miss steak.” There will come a time, she says, when she can afford them again, but for now, “I’m happy eating bacon.”