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The warrior with a wooden spoon

The warrior with a wooden spoon

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Food prices have soared this year and the arguments about the causes have raged. One campaigner cut through to demand change from government and supermarkets.

Until the end of the year, the Sensemaker podcast is looking back at the biggest stories of the past twelve months.

Today, the warrior with a wooden spoon who fought the supermarkets, the government and the internet.

***

This was the year when worrying about the price of food and the cost of cooking became a national concern.

“The cost of living in the UK is rising and it’s changing people’s lives.”

Ros Atkins

“We either have to eat and be cold or be warm and starve. That’s the way it is.”

Sharon Hutchinson

“All evidence suggests this is just the start.”

Ros Atkins

“The squeeze on household incomes is going to be the big story of 2022.”

Torsten Bell

Shoppers in the UK have seen the most aggressive food price rises for 45 years and the cost of all of the basics – milk, pasta, cheese, eggs and meat – has rocketed.

Those price rises hit hardest for people on the lowest incomes.

But official inflation figures have not always given us a true picture.

One person changed that this year – and shone a light on food poverty in a way that held the government’s statisticians and the big supermarkets to account. 

But for poverty campaigner and cook Jack Monroe, it came at a personal cost.

So why did food poverty become so political? 

And how did someone who began a decade ago as an unemployed single parent blogging about budget recipes become such a polarising figure?

***

“Prices have risen at their fastest in almost 30 years. Inflation climbed to 5.4% in December.”

BBC News

Jack Monroe’s year in the spotlight started with a tweet on the 19th of January.

In it, they said: “Woke up this morning to the radio talking about the cost of living rising a further 5%. It infuriates me the index that they use for this calculation grossly underestimates the real cost of inflation as it happens to people with the least…”

Jack Monroe went on to describe how the cheapest pasta in their local supermarket had gone up 141%  in a year…and followed with many other examples of everyday essentials going up much more than the official inflation rate.

To make matters worse, supermarkets had removed many value-range products from stores in areas that needed them most.

That Twitter thread went viral and within a week the Office for National Statistics promised to change its methods to show how rising inflation was impacting poorer households most.

In the future it said it would publish a more detailed breakdown and do more to capture the impact of price increases on different income groups.

And then, a month later, there was more. 

Asda’s chief customer officer said it had taken onboard Jack Monroe’s comments and that it would stock the full Smart Price range in all 581 stores and online, increasing the number of customers who have access to the value products. 

In May, Jack Monroe was named campaigner of the year by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, and spoke to Tortoise editor David Taylor in our newsroom:

Jack Monroe: “It’s very humbling and gratifying to, for the work that I do to be recognised. 99% of my time is spent stomping around my house with my mobile in my hand, sort of Wizard of OZ style. I’m kind of like this, I’m actually quite timid and shy in real life, but I go behind my curtain and boom, out into my Twitter feed all these expletives and all this fury.

It’s nice to feel that that makes a bit of a difference and that’s appreciated. But at the same time, there’s something really discomforting about, about the fact that it’s so necessary in the first place.”

In October, the Observer handed Jack Monroe its Food Hero award and Jack’s seventh cookbook is out in January, which all adds up to a pretty exceptional year…

But when you have more than half a million Twitter followers, the accolades come with a matching storm of abuse.

***

Jack Monroe is almost constantly targeted on social media.

Some people on the right don’t like Jack’s anti-government attacks on austerity. 

Some on the left criticise Jack because they didn’t back former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

And people from both sides also question Jack’s authenticity – were they ever as poor as they claim? Has Jack taken money from supporters online and failed to deliver on promises? 

The abuse is often aggressive and anonymous and by Jack’s own admission it’s, at times, driven them off social media and harmed their mental health.

Jack Monroe: On the one hand, 95% of the time I can go: If you’re picking on me personally, it’s because you don’t want to engage with the arguments. So if you are, if you are making false accusations about my income, or about my morals, or about things I’ve said, or things I’ve done, or if that is your only recourse to this discussion is slander and defamation… Then actually it’s because you don’t want to engage with austerity, your contribution to that, people dying as a result of DWP malpractice, all of those things, and it’s going… Okay.

If you just want to talk to me about how you think I’m a shoddy human being, I don’t really have very much time for that, actually, because I know myself better than anyone and I think that my moral code is all right and I think that I do all right trying to live by it.

But if it’s, but 5% of the time, usually when I’m in a depressive episode or when I’m exhausted, or well, you know, various human, human failings and flaws that come into play, it gets right under my skin and, and it, and it, and it hurts. It really genuinely hurts.”

In November, following an investigation by an anonymous blogger Jack Monroe apologised to supporters who had contributed financially to their work via the Patreon website. They acknowledged they hadn’t fulfilled all of their promises on content and rewards.

But defending themselves, Jack said the donations had helped them “focus on campaign work and unpaid advocacy work where I may not have been able to do so without your support.”

The food bank charity The Trussell Trust strongly defended Jack, saying the campaigner had “actively supported” its work and “continues to raise considerable amounts to support food banks.” 

Battles over the causes of the cost of living crisis have become one of the fault lines of 2022.

The Conservative government has tried to pin all of the blame on global supply chains and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, while critics have pointed to failures during the party’s 12 years in power – squeezed public services, wage freezes and the calamitous mini-budget which drove up housing costs for millions and weakened the pound making exports more expensive.

Jack Monroe seemed to be at the centre of all of the arguments this year. It’s hard to imagine 2023 will be any quieter.

This episode was written by David Taylor and mixed by Hannah Varrall.