Megan Kimble

This week Theresa Marquez continues her conversation with Megan Kimble, managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona in Tucson Arizona. Megan is also the author of Unprocessed: My Busy, Broke, City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Food which Bon Appetit magazine described as a “beautiful and refreshingly honest look at the sticky business of making ethical and responsible food choices in our current food landscape.”

In this second installment of Theresa and Megan’s discussion (listen to part 1 here), Megan talks about Tucson’s recent designation as a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy and what that means for the city both today and in the future. This well-deserved accolade places Tucson among 46 other cities on UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network. When asked “why Tucson?” Megan compares the distinction of World City of Gastronomy to a Nobel Prize in Literature, saying “authors don’t win for a single work, they win for their body of work. And so I like thinking of Tucson’s body of work in food.” Megan’s abundant insight regarding Tucson’s “body of work in food” is illuminating both in its own right and as it pertains to local food movements across the nation and the world.

Interview with Megan Kimble – part 2

June 20, 2016

Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now here’s host Theresa Marquez.

THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners. This is Theresa Marquez, and I’m happy to welcome you back to Rootstock Radio. This is part two of our interview with Megan Kimble, who is an author and the managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona in Tucson, Arizona. We’re going to be learning more about why Tucson, in 2015, became the first city in the U.S. to be a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy.

You know, you talked about processing your own food, so to speak—making yogurt; you made your own bread, I’m assuming. Were there other things that you found not too hard to do? I’ve kind of like made my own yogurt, and I think that some people think that there is a lot of, you know, mystery in how to make yogurt, but it’s actually very simple. Were there other things you found that you were making yourself, and you still make yourself, that happened from this year of eating unprocessed foods?

MEGAN KIMBLE: Yeah, I mean, you know, for example, I learned how to can food, so I can my own tomatoes often in the summer, or I’ll preserve food through hot-water canning, which is just sort of a fun skill to have. But a lot of the changes in my diet were kind of simpler, everyday things. So, for example, I used to buy canned beans. Well, I’ve stopped doing that and I now only buy dried beans. And you know, it’s such a simple shift, and it’s so much cheaper, and those beans taste so much better. But you know, so it was kind of that writ large. I learned how to make my own salad dressing. I never buy bottled salad dressing anymore, and I can spend that money I would spend on salad dressing and buy really good olive oil. So kind of, it was those shifts, little bits at a time, that really kind of accumulated into this whole new way of eating.

TM: During this year of trying to not eat processed food, did you find that your menu planning, your shopping, your pre-preparation, et cetera, changed quite a bit?

MK: Absolutely, it changed a lot. But you know, they were gradual changes. They were really small changes that you can make to incorporate into your routine, you know, at any level.

So the first thing I always tell people is to read the ingredient label on every single item you buy. So if you start reading ingredient labels, you’re going to start wondering, why is that ingredient there? What is that doing to my body? Where does it come from?  So I think that’s a great place to start. And then you can start, you know, kind of incorporating other unprocessed cooking or preparation into your weekly routine.

So, for example, like beans—I mentioned beans earlier. I cook a big pot of beans at the beginning of the week. Maybe you get some wheat berries, you make those up. You roast a bunch of vegetables or you chop them up, and then you have them ready to go in the morning for a quick grab-n-go Tupperware lunch. So I think just sort of making those gradual changes will make it much more, sort of, less daunting.

TM: Well I know, from the reviews that I read from people who read your book, you really inspired a lot of people and probably helped encourage a lot of people to try different things, different foods, and eat local, and maybe even think about cooking differently. So I think that’s so fantastic, so it’s really great.

You know, I would love to talk with you some more, Megan, about the designation of Tucson, Arizona, as a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy. What a fantastic title! I don’t even think Turin, Italy, has that designation. So how does it feel to have gotten that? You were in the city. Was that a surprise for a lot of people in Tucson?

MK: I mean, it’s just amazing, for one. We certainly, a lot of people put in a lot of work to get Tucson this recognition. But I also think, yeah, people were certainly surprised, partly because… I think that… So we’re now designated a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy, and I think the word gastronomy throws a lot of people off. So gastronomy kind of seems like it might mean sort of high foodie cuisine, so dining out in restaurants. But really, the reason that we were recognized by UNESCO is because of our whole food culture, our food system, the food ways that have been in Tucson for thousands of years. So that includes everything from backyard gardens and school gardens to, you know, James Beard award-winning chefs in downtown restaurants, to our innovative hunger relief programs that the Food Bank of Southern Arizona pursues. So it’s a whole spectrum of many different facets of our food system have come together and been recognized as this World City of Gastronomy.

TM: You know, I read the lovely article that you wrote for Edible Baja Arizona about that, and I understand that someone who wrote the application, Jonathan Mabry—?

MK: Mm-hmm.

TM: And I’m assuming more people than that. I’m just curious, do you know what made him feel that that was something that he really wanted to do or gave him the idea to do that?

MK: So the person who originally came up with the idea is someone named Gary Nabhan. He’s a professor at the University of Arizona. He’s a prolific writer and author and has been a food system activist for many years. And I think he saw the potential of the award to really sort of galvanize action in Tucson. So he’s been working and writing about food for a long time. But what this award does is it sort of shines a spotlight on our food system, so good and bad, right? You know, we have a lot of things that need to be improved in Tucson, and we have a lot of amazing people working on projects and collaborations, and this award sort of encompasses all of it.

So what he kind of saw, and he shared that vision with Jonathan Mabry, who really kind of led the charge in getting the application done, and many of us who were involved in the application were sort of sharing that vision of what this award could do for Tucson, you know, not only in sort of showing the world what we have—we have these amazing crops, this long agricultural history, really wonderful, innovative food system programs and businesses, so, you know, it’s outward looking, there was that potential; but it’s also inward looking, so how can we use this award as a community to really create change and bring more people access to good, healthy, fresh food?


TM: I’m so excited about that second part of how you’re looking out this, this inward look. I thought to myself, wow, this is a potential catalyst for change or for, let’s just say, continuing on a path of doing more of some of the things that you were already doing. I know that it was just in December of 2015, which wasn’t very long ago, maybe six months. But are you seeing some of that, seeing it be a catalyst? Are you seeing any of the thought that, wow, we better live up to our UNESCO designation, more or less?

MK: I mean, it’s still so new, so a lot of kind of the work that’s being done is just sort of figuring out how are we going to create change and who are going to be the collaborators. But there has certainly been so much more attention paid to food, which I think is, in and of itself, this amazing step forward: that this community recognizes that we have amazing local producers that are supplying our schools and hospitals and markets with great food, grown right here. You know, we have these innovative food banks, we have all the stuff that I’ve talked about. So getting people to be sort of proud of and invested in this community of food, I think, is a huge sort of first step in what this designation can do, because as people become more invested in this place, I think that they will start asking, you know, what can we do to change the things that perhaps haven’t yet risen to the level that we want them to. You know, how can I participate in shaping our food system, and how can we sort of broaden the conversation to include groups that haven’t previously been included.

TM: I’m assuming that, I know that you’re not the tourist bureau, but do you think that the politicians, the people who have influence in the city, see this as a real possibility to bring tourists, for example, to Tucson that wouldn’t ordinarily have come to Tucson?

MK: Absolutely. I mean, the city of Tucson is way on board with this designation. The application was actually submitted by Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, so he is fully behind this effort to bring food to the forefront of what Tucson is about. He actually created, not so long before we got the designation, the mayor created a City Commission on Food Security, Heritage, and Economic Development.[[Economy]] I will get the name wrong, but… So the city certainly recognizes that this has huge potential. And our tourism bureau, which is called Visit Tucson, has also sort of sprung into action to help people who might not be familiar with Tucson and our, you know, our cholla buds and tepary beans, help them, help tell that story and get those people here to experience them.

TM: You know, I’m thinking, when you were putting that application together, and what a great experience for you to be part of that effort to do that. What do you think—was it everything, or was it the 4,000 years, was it the Native heritage products that really stood out in that application for being a heritage site? I mean, I don’t know anything about the process, but I’m assuming they must get hundreds of applications.

MK: I don’t know honestly that much about the process sort of from the other end. I do know that our application was very comprehensive. It was, you know, it took a lot of work to put it together, most of which Jonathan Mabry really coordinated.

You asked why perhaps Tucson received this award. And the metaphor that I used in the story that I wrote for Edible Baja Arizona is that, you know, I compared it to a Nobel Prize for Literature. So, you know, authors don’t win for a single work, they win for their body of work. And so I like thinking of Tucson’s sort of body of work in food. You know, we have this very long agricultural history—people have been farming here for 4,000 years—but we also have people today who are creating new, innovative businesses and nonprofits who are contributing to that food system. So it’s the whole spectrum between those two extremes.


TM: Megan, I really loved your December 11, 2045, remarks from the thirtieth anniversary of Tucson’s designation as a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy. I thought it was a very creative idea and I just loved the way that you approached it. And it certainly said a lot about the things that perhaps we should be paying attention to right now. And I thought maybe, I wondered if we could just talk about that just a little bit. I think you came up with some pretty wonderful ideas and visions, and I’d love for you to speak a little bit about it. For example, “In 2020, the City of Tucson, Tucson Unified School District, and the University of Arizona adopted the Good Food Purchasing Policy, a metric-based food procurement policy that considered local economies, environmental sustainability,…” blah blah blah. Certainly that’s—2020, that’s only four years from now.

MK: I mean, the reason that I wrote this sort of, it’s kind of a retrospective—it’s thirty years from now, or thirty years from when Tucson received the UNESCO designation—of what has this designation done? What has it sort of done for our city and our food system? Because I think a lot of people today are still trying to figure out that question of, you know, in some ways it’s an aspirational award, so what can we do to change our community for the better? So once I started thinking about that, it was, you know, there are all sorts of things that impact our food system and the way that it runs.

So one of them seems somewhat more simple, which is, you know, how these big institutions that anchor any kind of community—you know, hospitals and schools and universities particularly—how they consume and purchase food. They have a huge capacity to change, to create economic development and demand. And so there’s this great metric called the Good Food Purchasing Policy, which I only learned about last year at a food conference, that kind of itemizes food purchasing decisions not only by, you know, where was it grown and by who but also what are the environmental impacts? What are the labor impacts? Who…you know, were the people who grew this food earning a living wage? And how was it transported? What is the nutrition content? So I think it kind of provides a comprehensive view of food procurement.

But beyond that, you know, there are so many other things that impact how we eat. One of them is how we vote. You know, who are our elected officials? And in Arizona, I’d say that our state government diverges pretty substantially from the Tucson demographic, for lack of a better word. So, you know, and I think that being engaged in local politics and state politics will have a huge impact on the kind of, what we can do with this designation.

TM: We are seeing some wonderful conferences across the United States. I was just at one in San Francisco; there was just one in Washington, D.C., called “The Real Cost of Food.” And certainly, by 2030, for us to do that, we would have to be able to weave in all those externalities that we don’t weave in now into our true cost of food. And I think that there certainly is a movement, and you certainly seem to be part of it, in Tucson. I wondered if you’d comment on that, you know, the idea of the true cost of food being part of what we need to do by 2030.

MK: Absolutely. We need to… I mean, you see that pretty quickly when you compare a local producer with, you know, an apple grown locally versus one that you can buy at Walmart. That local producer has to cost their food accurately for what it cost them to grow it, and Walmart doesn’t really have to do that. And so I think reckoning with how much we as a nation spend on food and what our priorities are.

So the United States, eaters in the United States spend a smaller fraction of their disposable income on food than any other developed country, so we spend 6 percent of our income on food. Most countries spend more like 20 percent; individuals spend 20 percent of their discretionary income on food. So that, to me, says that we don’t value it. We just expect food to be cheap and we don’t care what it does to our bodies or the environment. And I think once we sort of start to pay for the true cost of food and decide that that’s something that we value and it’s worth our money, you know, things will start to change.

But I also think that’s sort of one of the reasons I kind of made this visioning statement for this article, is when you say that we should be paying the true cost of food, you also, that relates very directly to the wages. So, you know, someone earning the minimum wage today simply cannot afford the true cost of food, so that person needs to earn more money. And that is a huge, has huge ramifications through our system, through our economic system. But I think that we just have to start tackling those things.


TM: For those listeners who have just tuned in, we are talking to the Tucson, Arizona, Edible Baja Arizona managing editor, Megan Kimble, who also wrote a book called Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Food. What a great title.

I’m really struck, as we’re speaking about how you’re seeing food as the doorway into so many different aspects of our communities and our society, certainly social justice is one that, I think, that you just spoke of. And that is trying to get our minimum wage up for food workers and farm workers, who probably make the lowest amount of money, especially the food workers who have to live on tips.

The other doorway that I found quite interesting is you go from some social  justice issues and growing food and the climate to democracy. You know, this is food as a doorway into democracy and engagement. And I’m always shocked at how few people vote. But you say that in the 2014 general election, less than 40 percent of Arizonians voted, and that part of your vision of the future is that food, you know, becomes this doorway into engagement and helps transform a community to people who want to vote, who want to be really engaged in this democracy. I love the vision, but I wondered if you wanted to comment on that as well.

MK: Yeah, I mean, I think that food certainly led me into politics. So it led me into being aware of how my vote impacts the food that I have available to me at the supermarket. So I see them as incredibly connected and also sort of, yeah, dismaying how few people exercise that right to vote. But I think that sort of I see food as the gateway that you… I mean, voting is a choice, it’s exercising a choice, and that’s the same thing about buying food differently. So once you sort of start to exert your own autonomy over your food choices, you decide to say, “I don’t want this, I want that because it’s better for my family, it’s better for my community, it’s better for myself,” then I think that that kind of decision-making power extends into the civic sphere. And so it’s about getting people engaged in their civic life, not just as consumers, not just of how am I spending my money on food, but also how am I voting for representatives who are going to make all these decisions which impact my family and myself and my community.

So I see that they’re kind of… I think being sort of more engaged with your food can be a gateway into being more engaged with politics. And I do think, until we really start to show up en masse in our political system, you know, we eaters who want food that is sustainable and just and good for us, until we start to show up in our political system, there’s a limited amount of power that we have. But if we show up, if we vote, if we really sort of exercise our rights, I think that so much can change.


TM: Hear, hear! I can’t help it, I also have to… You know, when we started off this interview you were saying, “Oh, it’s only 110 degrees here in Tucson today.” And then you also mentioned Barbara Kingsolver as someone who started her writing career in Arizona, and in Tucson. In fact her book, let me see if I can get it right—is it Animal, Vegetable, Miracle?

MK: Mm-hmm.

TM: Definitely one of my favorite books, by the way. But in it they move from Tucson, and she has this huge relief of “Ah, I’m going somewhere where I have water.” By 2030, you’re saying severe drought of 2030 as your… You’re more or less saying that that’s going to happen—and of course that is likely to happen, probably even before 2030—and leading to food scarcity as a prediction; and then waking up, the local folks waking up to the fact that you’re exporting water, which of course much of South America and Central America is doing now, and probably we are as well, and of course the wealth of water. And I’m just wondering, what, you know, don’t you think that’s going to happen before then? And are there things now that are real inhibitions to production of food in your region because of the fact that water is becoming more and more of an issue?

MK: Well, I mean, I certainly hope it doesn’t happen before 2030. I think that was an optimistic statement that catastrophe is still far enough away that we can do something about it. But in Arizona, you know, water is life, water is food, and water is sort of what our future is tied to, the availability of water. And so I don’t think that we can take it too seriously.

So, but part of the problem is that… We have enough water to grow the food that we need to sustain the people that live in Arizona. The problem is that when we start using that water for, you know, for more subdivisions, for alfalfa and cotton that we export, you know, for kind of purposes that don’t further the wealth of the people who live in this state. So, and I think water, to me, is such a, like, obvious connection between food and politics, because it’s our state government that’s deciding our water policy. And we need, the citizens of Arizona, the citizens of any state or country, need to be able to have input, to say, “Hey, this is what we want to do with our water,” because you know all of the climate predictions say, particularly in the southwest, water is going to be an incredibly scarce resource. And so we need to sort of take ownership over that future and say, decide what we want to do with it. You know there will still be water—it’s just going to be a question of who controls it.


TM: One of the certainly huge uses of water in the southwest is livestock, animal production. Do you think that—and you didn’t say this exactly in your predictions for 2045—but do you see that we’ll be eating differently, i.e. less meat?

MK: Yeah, I think by necessity we will. So I am not a vegetarian. I eat 90 percent vegetarian, so I eat meat maybe once a week, maybe twice a week. And when I do eat meat I try my very best to buy it from someone who’s producing it locally and from someone who I sort of can understand the supply chain and how they’re producing it. So, you know, not to hold my eating habits up by any means, I think that what we’ll have to do is sort of start to value meat more. So if we want to continue eating meat, we’re going to have to do it less frequently, and sort of spend more resources on it.

So in southern Arizona there are a lot of ranchers who raise cattle on desert range, so there are cattle who, there are breeds, heritage breeds like criollo cattle, who have sort of adapted to eat the food that’s in the desert. So that includes prickly pear, that includes jojoba, that includes mesquite. So there are cattle breeds that have evolved to live in this arid place and make really delicious steak. And so, you know, I think that that’s a great model for how we can continue to eat meat but not do it in a way that’s so destructive and so extractive, like 99 percent of the meat that is consumed in this country is. So I think that, yeah, we’ll definitely have to eat a lot less meat. I think if we want to continue eating meat it’s just going to have to be something that is recognized as an investment, as the investment that it truly is. You know, it’s not a low-impact food, but also animals have that really important place in agriculture. So I do see that there is a place for it in the future.

TM: Well, Megan, I really, really enjoyed talking with you today, and I think that we’re about to run out of time here. For those of you who tuned in in the middle of our conversation, we have been talking with Megan Kimble, who is an author and managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona. Megan, I am now more than ever excited to read your book, and I am so thrilled to have talked with you today and to hear such great understanding. And in fact, I’m looking at the last paragraph of the Edible Baja article on who is Tucson in 2045, and your last paragraph just is lovely, and that is about how food powers us to connect. And I’m just thrilled.

And also, you point out that those second- and third- and fourth-graders who are growing vegetables now in their schools are going to be forty in 2045. So just giving us so much food for thought and from such a fresh perspective. So I just want to thank you for all the great work that you’re doing, and hope that someday that you’ll come visit us out here in the Midwest.

MK: Yeah, well, I would love to, and thank you so much for having me on.

TM: For those of you who would like to learn more about the heritage sites, we’re going to put a list on of the 116 UNESCO sites on And thank you so much for listening in. And thank you so much, Megan, for your activism, your wonderful understanding of our food system that you’ve just talked to us about, and for being an inspiration to probably a lot of people on how maybe it isn’t as hard to walk our talk and to create change in the way we eat.

MK: Well, thank you!

You can listen to Rootstock Radio on the go at iTunes and Stitcher, and find us online at Rootstock Radio is brought to you by Organic Valley Family of Farms.