“My first foray into unprocessed food occurred in the aisles of Trader Joe’s,” Megan Kimble writes on her blog. “It was a Wednesday afternoon, and I had an hour before I needed to be somewhere — plenty of time, I thought. I grabbed a cart, walked in the door, and made it 10 steps before I was stopped and stumped by a bag of tortillas.”
Confronted by strange ingredients such as soy lecithin (an emulsifier) and sulfur dioxide (a preservative), Kimble (BA ’08) realized that her attempt to eat unprocessed foods for one year would be more difficult than she had anticipated.
“I was really interested in food, and I had read Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle, and I had gotten really interested in the idea that our food system is broken,” says Kimble, who earned her MFA in creative writing from the University of Arizona in 2012 and is now managing editor of local foods magazine Edible Baja Arizona. “I wanted to engage with that idea, but I didn’t really know what I could do.”
Living in a tiny apartment in Tucson and surviving off the $16,000 stipend she made as a graduate student, Kimble had limited resources with which to explore the food system conundrum. But when she discovered blogger Andrew Wilder’s annual October Unprocessed challenge to eat only unprocessed food for a month, she found her project: to take the challenge 11 steps further and eat unprocessed for a year. Her book about the experience is being shopped to publishers.
“It was really interesting for me to figure out what constituted processed food, because of course all food is processed,” she says. “Cooking is process; so is harvesting from a field. I found that really interesting, and I also found it interesting to think about how much money I was spending on food. I was on a mission to prove that eating locally and unprocessed would not break the bank — that anyone could do it.”
For Kimble’s purposes, a food was unprocessed if she could theoretically make it in her home kitchen. Whole wheat flour, organic produce and full-fat dairy became staples of her diet, along with foods that contain no refined sugar — the hardest part of the journey, she says.
“If you’re looking at an ingredient label, if it says sugar anywhere on it, it’s refined,” she says. “Cane syrup, brown rice sugar — there are a thousand different names for it. Even organic cane sugar is refined in some way.
“What’s frustrating to me about sugar in processed foods is that it’s in everything,” she adds. “From salad dressing to marinara sauce to whole wheat bread — to me, sugar is ‘processed’ less in the sense of its actual chemical structure than in its ubiquity. I think that’s why we, as a nation, are eating so much more sugar — we don’t know we’re eating it.”
Another challenge for Kimble was eating at restaurants, where “I asked the waiter 20 annoying questions — is there sugar in the marinara sauce, in the salad dressing — I hit a point with eating out where I just had to try my best,” she says. “It’s impossible to know what’s in everything.”
At the end of the year, Kimble found that she had spent slightly more per meal than she had before going unprocessed, but that the health benefits she felt were absolutely worth it. The stomachaches she had had off and on for years went away, and a decade of yo-yo dieting was replaced by healthy eating.
“I didn’t gain weight during my year,” she says. “I didn’t lose weight, either, but I was really full. Eating unprocessed foods really filled me up and satiated me in a way that diet food hadn’t, so I could eat whatever I wanted. My digestion improved as well, because your stomach really doesn’t like fake food.”
And though she started the project for health reasons, Kimble found additional benefits to eating unprocessed as the year continued.
“Something that sort crystallized halfway through my year were the political ramifications of eating unprocessed,” she says. “By spending your money differently on foods that come from people you know or sources you know or local producers, you’re withholding your food spending from corporations like ConAgra or Monsanto, who are creating the foods that become processed foods. One of the reasons I was doing it was to invest in my local community and to divest from multinational corporations who were producing food that I was convinced was not good for me or for the environment. So it became a little more political in the end, and also much more locally focused.
“Spending my money locally and getting to know my food producers ended up creating a lot of pleasure in my life,” Kimble adds. “I go to the farmers’ market and I know the woman who makes my cheese — I feel much more connected to my community, and I found that connection through food.”
Kimble shares these and other lessons in her book, as well as on her website, megankimble.com. She admits that eating only unprocessed food for a year is a bit extreme, but says she hopes others can benefit from what she learned.
“What I would love more people to do is just read ingredient labels,” she says. “Once you start reading ingredient labels, you realize how much unnecessary stuff is in our food.”