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Blogger Jack Monroe's affordable recipe ideas became an internet hit and a best-selling book. Here, Jack discusses how community can be a powerful force - and remembers the women who made her trip to Tanzania with Oxfam so memorable.
When I was a single mum on benefits and really struggling to make ends meet, a lot of people gave me a lot of help. People would come round for tea and bring teabags with them. I honestly believe that most people have a good heart and are naturally helpful. If we tap into that and learn to be kinder, the world becomes a little better.
On supporting Oxfam…
I think we share a lot of similar values - like fairness, equality and wanting to give people access to equal chances and basic rights. It's all about encouraging people to do whatever they can to have an impact.
On visiting Tanzania with Oxfam…
I met a lot of very inspirational women, many of whom had been brought up in very difficult circumstances. I remember one group of women who would eat in each other's houses every night, each bringing something and eating communally. Here were people pooling resources, time and energy to create something so much greater than the individual parts. I came home realising that we might not be able to completely resolve food poverty, but we can certainly make life better by forming groups, working as communities and helping people not to be alone.
Photo: Mora McLagan, header image: Susan Bell
On women and poverty…
I visited a project designed to raise awareness of how much women farmers were doing that they weren't being paid for. I also remember meeting one women who had left a violent husband and had lived in poverty ever since because she had to build up her life again from scratch. And then there was a woman who had left her job because her boss withheld her wages after she wouldn't sleep with him. I think it's definitely true that women get a raw deal no matter where they are.
On shared experiences…
I also remember meeting a woman in Tanzania who had to leave her job after having a child because there was no one to look after her children. I had to leave my job in the fire service because I wasn't able to work flexible hours that fitted around nursery. And so while we live on different sides of the world, there are still those experiences we have in common.
On the impression left by Tanzania…
It very much had a lasting impact on me - that's something I talk about quite a lot. And everywhere I went I was presented with fabric that I then made into curtains, so the evidence of that trip is with me every day!
On Tanzanian food…
I did bring back some recipes! I was very ill when I was there and a lady I met called Sister Martha made me chicken soup. It was amazing: that made it into my recipe book. There was a little fried fish recipe that made it into a book too. I filled an entire notebook while I was in Tanzania.
On simple food…
If you take the pomp and circumstance out of a lot of expensive recipes, you're left with very simple meals. So often what I do is pare things back to their roots - looking at packaging or recipes and swapping expensive or complicated ingredients. I began by following recipes by people like Nigella and Gordon Ramsay and replicating them using cheaper ingredients - swapping Charlotte potatoes for tinned spuds or using red wine vinegar instead of red wine.
On blogging about food…
I think the value of what I do is helping people when it gets to 5pm and they know they're going to make dinner, but they've only got a bit left in their cupboards and they want to know what to make with it. One by one I'm rescuing people's dinners, and that's exactly why I started doing it. Think of all the half empty bags of flour out there! Think of all the lentils! That's why I do what I do.
The things that I think are important are honesty - which often gets me into a world of trouble - and finding value in things and in other people. A lot of what I do is based around literally finding value in things that other people might not see as valuable, on a very practical level. So I try and find the cheapest things in the supermarket and give them a value. We all love an underdog - mine happens to be vegetables! I try and celebrate things for what they are.
It worries me that society seems to be getting harder and people seems to be getting more selfish. If we live in our flats and don't know our neighbours, how will we know if people are struggling? I once ran into a friend of my mum's who was volunteering at a food bank I was using and it really made me assess how I was being. I hadn't told my friends and family how bad things were, and I think we can all be guilty of that, but it doesn't help. Having a stiff upper lip and hiding in our homes doesn't work. We need to talk to our neighbours.
On food banks…
Certainly most of the people who use my local food bank are young mums, which obviously has links to gender and equality. I think it's a disgrace that we have food banks in this country. Something's gone horribly, horribly wrong when people work every day and have to rely on charity handouts to feed their families. It makes me furious - really raw, deep down furious.
On her next book, Cooking on a bootstrap…
It's back to beans, pulses, rice, frozen veg and the other things I always use. There's still a need for it - people still ask me to help them figure out how to make an interesting meal for their kids on very little money. It's back to my bold, honest, bolshie roots! People still need me to stick two fingers up at the food industry. If you're at home and you're a single mum, I can help you to take a few tins out of the cupboard and make something that the kids will want to eat for dinner. That will always be my thing.
De-stigmatising a lot of issues has become a very personal mission for me. I've talked quite openly about depression and about the realities of being a single mum on benefits, because I think I've almost got a responsibility to drag these things into the limelight. You can't bury it and hide it away - it forms a large part of who I am. Talking about these things helps you understand yourself better, and other people may not feel so alone.
On coming out as transgender…
I've had abuse from a small group of people, but - as with everything I do - I've had plenty of support too. The abuse is water off a duck's back, to be honest, and coming out felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders.
On making a difference…
We've all got the power to change the world - I genuinely believe that. It's about a ripple effect. It's important to join big campaigns and support charities, but small actions like helping in your community also make a big difference.
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