Megan Kimble is the author of Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food. The book chronicles Kimble's efforts to take one year off from eating processed food and what she learned from the experience. She recently spoke to Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel about why she wrote the book, how to find local foods when you're out shopping, and why she slaughtered a sheep as part of her research. This interview is condensed and edited from that conversation.
This book is all about you taking one year off from eating any kind of processed food Where did the idea come from?
I had been reading all the stuff about food that many of us had read—you know, how sort of destructive our food system is to the environment, how unhealthy processed food is to our bodies, and soert of trying to figure out a way in. At the time that I started this, I was a graduate student earning a graduate-student's salary. I was in this tiny little apartment, so a lot of the scenarios about local food felt kind of inaccessible to me, and so it was an attempt to find a way in—what could I do in my own life, having already limited time and money.
When you're talking about unprocessed food, you've got to figure out where to draw that line. How did you do it?
The book is really an exploration, because, of course, all food is processed. Cooking is a kind of process. So at the beginning of my year, I set up this framework that a food was unprocessed if I could theoretically make it at home. So, for example, you can make wheatberries. You can grind them up. In fact, I've got a little hand-crank grain grinder and ground them up into wheat flour. You could take that a step further and make refined white flour without bleach and chemicals and industrial machining. So that was the sort of framework. If I could imagine how a food was made, it was unprocessed. And so, what could you eat? I ate a lot of really delicious food. I ate cheese from the farmer's market. I ate whole grains, I ate whole grain bread. I'm a member of the Tucson Community Supported Agriculture Program, so lots of fresh local vegetables. I drank wine and beer still. I tried to get it locally when possible. So once I set up that framework and figured out the things that I couldn't buy at the supermarket any more, it became pretty easy.
What did you learn about food as you went about this?
One thing that I learned is how much crazy stuff is in our food once you start checking it, turning it over and reading the ingredient label. It's kind of shocking. Sugar is in everything. So I think just the processes of reading ingredient labels and trying to figure out what was in my food, that alone changed my eating habits.
And did you really end up slaughtering sheep?
I did end up slaughtering a sheep. So the book is about food and so you I start with wheat, I do sugar, vegetables, salt, dairy. And I ended the year thinking about meat. I was raised by two vegetarians, so I kind of had to figure out a way into meat and how to figure out how I could eat it responsibly. So I did this workshop with Bean Tree Farm, which is a local farm outside of Tucson, and along with eight other people, slaughtered the sheep, and it was a really transformative experience. And to answer maybe the follow-up question, it actually was really helpful in understanding what's involved, and so now I actually feel fine eating a little red meat.
Have you slaughtered any more sheep?
I have not, no. It's not a regular part of my life these days.
The issue of climate change and how the way we eat is contributing to global warming is a big thread throughout the book.
That was a huge part of how I got into food. I was really interested in the environment. You know when I was in college and saw An Inconvenient Truth and like so many other people, I had the realization of "Oh no! We have to do something." And so I learned that the food system entails almost 40 percent of the greenhouse gases that we produce in the United States, and so it's a huge contributor to global warming and climate change, and the way that we farm today is really not very good for the environment, not to mention animal and meat production.
One of the big things these days is the farm-to-table movement and the growing awareness about the importance of fresh foods and local foods.
I think a lot of people have the same realizations that I had, not only about the sort of larger food system and how large and incomprehensible it is for any one person to engage with. That scares a lot of people. But people are realizing that food grown nearby tastes better. It's just better food. You know, cheese made by a local cheese maker is fresher and the eggs are fresher, and so it's just easier to eat healthy
You talk also about the importance of spending your money with local businesses and the economic impact of that.
That was basically the conclusion of my book, and I love the study by Local First Arizona that says that if everyone in the community of Tucson shifted just 10 percent of their spending to local business, collectively, we would keep $140 million in new revenue in our community. Our consumer choices have an impact, particularly in the food system. There are a lot of local producers in Southern Arizona who are struggling to make ends meet and every consumer dollar helps them produce more food for our local foodshed. I really believe in the power of money circulating through our community. It helps not only our local producers but also our firefighters and our roads and our city government. All of that has to do with how people in the community spend their money.
How do people get closer to the local producers of food?
Going to a farmer's market is a really great way to start to talk to the people selling food. Ask, "Where is your farm? How did you grow it? What kind of foods are you producing?" Joining a CSA is another great way. It gets producers a reliable source of income, and it's a really great thing in terms of getting local food for not as much money. Go to local grocery stores, like the Food Co-Op on Fourth Avenue. Just try to figure out who's producing what in our foodshed.