This week Theresa Marquez speaks 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. Bon Appetit magazine said, “Unprocessed is a beautiful and refreshingly honest look at the sticky business of making ethical and responsible food choices in our current food landscape.”
In this part one of their two-part interview, Theresa and Megan discuss the founding and direction of Edible Baja Arizona and how her book has changed the way she views the world of food.
Join us next week for part two of this interview, when Megan talks about Tucson’s recent award as a World City of Gastronomy.
Interview with Megan Kimble – part 1
June 13, 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, and welcome back to Rootstock Radio. This is Theresa Marquez, and I am so excited today and, I should say, delighted to be talking to Megan Kimble, who is the managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona. Welcome, Megan.
MEGAN KIMBLE: Thanks! Thanks for having me.
TM: And it is pretty exciting, actually, to be talking to a managing editor of an Edible. But what I’m really excited about, Megan, is that you’re a millennial! And that makes me so happy. You’re just like thirty years old, aren’t you?
MK: Twenty-nine, as a matter of fact.
TM: Twenty-nine. I’m so curious, and you, at twenty-six, wrote a book that got what I consider excellent rave reviews. And you know, one of the people that changed my life in the food world was France Moore Lappé, who wrote Diet for a Small Planet when she was twenty-seven. And I immediately thought of her as I learned about your book. But Megan, how is it that you got interested in food?
MK: Yeah, so I’m totally flattered by that comparison! But, you know, I had read sort of much of what we’ve all read, including Diet for a Small Planet, about how destructive our food system is for the environment, for the air and water and soil. And you know, I grew up with…my father is a scientist—I guess I should start there. So I grew up knowing about peak oil when I was a teenager. I knew about climate change, we talked about it around the dinner table. So it was very much something I had incorporated into my life and was doing environmental writing, but was sort of trying to find a way in. You know, it’s a big topic, it’s complicated.
And so food was a way in. Food is something that we all do and it’s incredibly accessible, and it’s also something that people can connect with in a very easy way. So I started reading more about our food system; I read Michael Pollan, I read Mark Bittman, a lot of the people, Marion Nestle; Barbara Kingsolver, who started her career in Tucson.
And at the time, I was twenty-six. I was making a graduate student’s salary, which was about $17,000 a year, and felt like I couldn’t really access those narratives, like it was kind of inaccessible to me because I didn’t have a lot of time and I didn’t have a lot of money. So what I started thinking about was, how can someone who lives in a city, who has really no ability to grow her own food, like what can I do? How can I contribute to changing our food system? And so for me, the answer was that I stopped eating processed food. And I did that for a year, I didn’t eat any processed food, and tried to do it on a budget, tried to do it with my limited income and time and kind of see if it could be done.
TM: And it looks like you did do it for a year. And as far as I can tell from some of the reviews that I read, people are very inspired by what you did. Megan, I’m always so curious about writers who are also very deep into the food movement, food business, and food change. And I always wonder, what is the kind of relationship between writing and food that is so attractive, do you think?
MK: That’s a great question. I mean, I certainly consider myself a writer first and a, whatever the word is, food activist or foodie, for lack of a better word, second. So I started my career in journalism. My degree is in creative writing, nonfiction, which is a funny hybrid between nonfiction and journalism. So I’ve been writing about food for the past five or seven years, but I could certainly see pivoting that interest to something else.
But in terms of why food or how writers interact with it, I think for me food, as a writer, food is such a sort of visceral thing that we do again and again and again. So you know, you can access people on all sorts of different levels with food. So people eat because they’re worried about their weight. People choose their food because they are concerned about the environment. People eat for cultural reasons. People eat for family reasons. So there are so many different motivators in food that to me, it’s such a topic that I don’t know if I’ll ever get sick of it, because food connects to everything. You know, you can talk about labor, you can talk about fine dining, you can talk about school gardens. And so it allows me, as a writer, to have access to so many different topics through the lens of food.
TM: I can tell by some of the things that I’ve read that you’ve written, you really have a deep understanding of the impacts of food on social justice, on culture, and just on society in general. You know, as I was reading, I was struck by something that you said, and that is that using our unique food culture as a means for economic development… What do you think is unique about the Tucson food culture that you think is going to help with their economic development?
MK: Tucson is an incredibly…Tucson has a wonderful food culture. And I moved here five years ago so I’m not from here, and I arrived and was sort of astounded to be like, there’s so much happening here. There are so many amazing farms and ranches and producers and artisans. But there’s also this incredibly deep culture.
You know, this is a place with a history of agriculture going back four thousand years, so continual agriculture. People have been living and farming in the Tucson basin for four thousand years. And that has ramifications all over our food system. So we still grow a lot of the heritage crops that have been grown here and so are adapted to grow well in this arid, kind of crazy place that I call home.
And also, because of that, because of where we’re located at the U.S./Mexico border, and adjacent to the Tohono O’odham Nation, we have this great mix of Hispanic food, of Native American cuisine and crops, and also Anglo influences. So it’s this really amazing sort of convergence of a lot of different cultures and also crops.
TM: Well, I’m assuming what you just described had a lot to do with the fact that in December of 2015, Tucson was designated a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy, which was shocking to me when I read it because you would think so many other cities in the United States would have that. And what an incredibly special designation. I’m wondering, do we still see this four-thousand-year history? Do we still see pretty much that heritage food being eaten, celebrated, in the restaurants, with everyday people, in people’s homes?
MK: Absolutely. I mean, the Gastronomy designation was really exciting and wonderful, but I think for a lot of the people here it wasn’t surprising. You know, this is something, a community that has a really strong identity as a community and has continued to eat these crops and make these foods that sort of are now being celebrated through this designation, in their homes, in their schools. It’s a sort of ordinary—not ordinary but, you know, everyday occurrence that we incorporate these foods in our diets.
So one example of how Tucson’s agricultural history is made visible is there’s this place called Mission Garden, and it’s a plot of land which archeologists have found evidence of agriculture, and there’s irrigation canals extending back four thousand years. And so a group of volunteers got together and decided to sort of restore the history in this place, restore the garden as it was when the mission was established here in the 1600s. And so today there’s this beautiful walled garden with heritage quince trees and pomegranate trees. There is a timeline garden that they have established, which you can see some of the first crops that were grown here—the kinds of corns, the beans, and then how that evolved as different waves of immigrants came, as different settlers arrived and brought their own seeds with them. And so there’s this really amazing sort of visualization of Tucson’s change.
And a lot of those crops we still eat today. You can still find tepary beans on the menu of Tucson’s sort of fancy downtown restaurants. You can still find cholla buds included in school cafeteria food. So it’s something that I think is definitely still very much a living part of the city.
TM: Well, you know, it’s so exciting to hear about the fact that some of these foods are making it into the schools. So many cities now are trying to figure out how to do this farm-to-table, farm-to-school, farm-to-hospital. It sounds like there’s quite a movement there in Tucson where these foods are going into schools. Would you say that that’s being successful in the Tucson city?
MK: Absolutely. It’s been sort of amazing to see the transition that TUSD, which is Tucson Unified School District, has undertaken over the past few years to really make that a priority, to get good food in these schools. Which, you know, Tucson certainly struggles with poverty and with hunger. We have in Pima County, which is where Tucson is, one out of three children suffers from hunger, so that means a lot of the kids in our schools are getting free and reduced lunches. So that means that as we incorporate more local produce, more garden produce into cafeterias, these kids are getting fresh food that they might not otherwise get at home.
One really exciting program is that the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, which is like a leader food bank across the country, has started this brokerage program. So one sort of barrier to entry of more local farms, for example, selling to an entity like TUSD, is that they simply don’t produce enough food. You know, TUSD serves 96,000 kids every day, so you just don’t have enough food. So what the Community Food Bank has done is that they’ve kind of stepped in and are acting as the middleman to buy food from local farms, aggregate it at their distribution center and warehouse, and then, because they have all the certifications that are required already to be a vendor, then they can sell it to an institution like TUSD. So that’s allowed, you know, only within the past year, for farms to get access to this whole new market, and for schools to have access to foods that they otherwise wouldn’t have. So to me, that is such a win-win in many ways, but it also comes back to the economic development point of how food can be used to help our community prosper.
TM: Pretty fantastic model, I think, for so many other cities. How about other food service arenas like the hospitals, which I’m always wondering why it is that some of the worst food in the world happens in hospitals. But I think the Community Food Bank, that sounds like a very, very exciting link. Is there any distribution happening, though, in other food service arenas like hospitals?
MK: Yeah, absolutely. So one of the first institutions to sign on with the Community Food Bank’s brokerage program—I don’t know exactly what they’re calling it, but that’s what I call it—was Tucson Medical Center. So Tucson Medical Center has agreed to buy local food from the Food Bank, who then buys it from local farmers. And TMC has really made an effort to incorporate more fresh food and healthy, organic ingredients into their patients’ meals and also all the visitors that come to the hospital. So hospitals are certainly on board, and there are lots of other… I think, to me, it’s just really begun in its first year, and I think there’s so much demand and so much capacity that can be built just by sort of building these relationships across the community.
TM: That’s pretty darn exciting. I’m assuming that your work with Edible Baja really keeps your finger on the pulse of a lot of these things. And you’ve been doing that for, is it four years or so?
MK: Right, yes. So we launched the magazine three years ago, actually, this month. So our first issue was in June of 2013, which was sort of amazing timing for me as I finished my degree in May of 2013. So we launched Edible Baja Arizona three years ago. And one reason that we decided it to call it Edible Baja Arizona instead of Edible Tucson is that we really wanted to make a statement that in Tucson our foodshed includes Mexico. So the border is a completely arbitrary line when it comes to our food and our water and the resources that we’ve shared across that border for thousands of years. And so we cover stories in Tucson, we cover stories in the rural areas around Tucson, and we also try our very best to do stories about northern Sonora.
TM: I really love that idea of thinking in terms of an ecosystem instead of just a city or a state or a county. It just makes so much more sense to be thinking in terms of foodshed. And that border between us and Mexico, I guess I’m not speaking for Donald Trump, but is certainly imaginary in some ways.
MK: Right, in a lot of ways.
TM: I hope you don’t mind, but I must back up a little bit. Being someone who loves food myself so much, you started listing some of the things, and actually my eyes immediately kind of widened as I heard you talk about quince and pomegranate as old heritage foods, which I guess I hadn’t even thought of those as old heritage foods. But then you mentioned a few others, different kind of beans, and then what did you say, cholla buds?
MK: Yeah, so cholla buds are one example of foods that are wild harvested here and have been by Native populations who lived here for thousands of years. So cholla buds are little—I’m going to just probably get the description wrong—but they’re little buds that are produced on prickly pear cactuses. So they come from cholla cactus, they come from different kinds of cactus, and you can harvest the buds and cook them and eat them. And people have been doing that for a very long time.
So other examples: the saguaro cactus, which is the sort of emblematic cactus of the Southwest, produces fruit every summer. And Tohono O’odham people have been harvesting that fruit for a very long time and processing it into syrups and wines and all sorts of really delicious food. Another kind of wild food that just grows on trees, it grows in my backyard every year, are mesquite trees. So mesquites are all over Tucson. They’re native, and they produce this pod which right around now or in the next couple weeks will dry out, and you can harvest them and mill them into mesquite flour. And mesquite flour is this really delicious, highly nutritious food that you can bake with. You can make…my favorite dessert are mesquite flour cookies, because the flour is a little bit sweeter than wheat flour, and so you don’t need to add a ton of sugar. So that’s just the wild harvest.
TM: Wow, is it gluten free?
MK: I think so, yeah.
TM: That would be a boon for some people, anyway. Mesquite pods. Just going back for a second though, the cholla buds, are they nutritious as well?
MK: Yeah. I mean, I couldn’t rattle off their nutritious properties off the top of my head, but they’re this really sort of pack a punch in terms of… They’re little—I’m trying to…I’m making a motion with my finger but you can’t see that. You know, they’re maybe the size of a quarter. And you can dry them also, so they store really well, and then you can rehydrate them. And they’re really delicious. And there’s a restaurant downtown that makes a tepary bean cholla salad, which is tepary beans are these really great, flavorful beans that are desert adapted, so they grow really well in arid climates, with cholla buds. And it’s a really great sort of taste-of-place kind of dish.
TM: Tell us about tepary beans.
MK: Yeah, so they’ve been grown here for hundreds if not a thousand years, and they’re really well adapted to… You know, they don’t need a ton of water. They’re smaller than traditional beans. The word that’s often used to describe them is toothsome, so they have this really great sort of chewiness to them that I love.
TM: Very, very fascinating. What other things in the Tucson area do you think that are just so unique, you know, really stand out, from the heritage of the Tucson region?
MK: You know, I mean there are so many… Southern Arizona is a place with incredible biodiversity in our natural environment, so in our wilderness areas. And that’s also true of food. So we have… The Slow Food International Ark of Taste collects heritage foods and lists them so that they can be protected. And we in Tucson have more heritage foods listed on this Ark of Taste than any other city in North America. So we have an incredible variety of different crops that can be eaten that are suited to this particular environment.
TM: Well, for our listeners out there today, we are talking to Megan Kimble, who’s the managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona and author of a book called Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Food. And even though I’m so tempted to continue to explore all the different foods of the Tucson area, I’d love to talk to you a little bit more about your book. And I have a feeling I know why you decided to do it, because the title kind of says it all. But tell us about the book, about writing it, about the experience of it, and what kind of feedback have you been getting from it.
MK: Yeah, so, I mean, like I said, I decided to write this book as a way to sort of find a way into the local food narrative as someone who was busy, broke, and urban, to try to find a way of how can I contribute to making change in our food system. And so what I did is I decided to stop eating processed food. And a lot of the book is exploring the question, “What makes food processed?” Because of course all food is processed. You know, cooking is a kind of process; so is fermenting or preserving of any sort. So a lot of what I had to figure out during my year is where should I draw the line? And that was different for every food. You know, it depended on price, it depended on convenience, it depended on sort of logistical feasibility.
So I sort of, my kind of litmus test was a food was unprocessed if I could theoretically make it in my home kitchen. So, for example, you know, I could buy wheat berries, wheat groats in southern Arizona, and I could grind them up in a little hand-crank grain grinder that I bought for my house and make whole-grain flour to bake into bread. So that’s a pretty sensible process that you can follow along step by step. I couldn’t take it a step further and sift out the bran and the germ and bleach that endosperm into fluffy white flour. So I didn’t eat any refined flour. I didn’t eat refined sugar.
MK: Yeah, the sugar was by far the hardest to cut out. Once you start looking, you find out that sugar is in everything. You know, it’s in things that you don’t think need to be sweet, like mustard and deli meat, and just sort of in many, many different forms.
So as I went along, I just had to kind of figure out how to make it feasible. And so that was a big part of the exploration that I did.
TM: And I think part of your book is explaining what “processed” and “not processed” means to you. But was there something in particular about the health benefits, the cost of processed foods, that made you focus on that?
MK: Yeah, so it was actually kind of more of a political reason above anything else. I had learned about how many resources are required to make processed food—you know, how many different materials are needed to be, for example, like mined out of the earth to make a Twinkie. And that was something that made me really uncomfortable as an eater. But as I dug deeper and deeper into it, I learned more about sort of the food politics and the corporations that control our food system, and really wanted to opt out of that system. So I wanted to not spend my money supporting companies like Cargill and General Mills, who are producing these foods that are not only not good for our health but also not good for the health of our environment and our agricultural system.
The biggest motivator for me at the end of the day was actually economic. So a study I cite in the book and then I kind of use a lot is that there’s this group in Phoenix called Local First Arizona, and they’re a local business coalition across the state trying to get people to shop locally. And they did a study that found that if everyone in a community the size of Tucson, which is about 500,000 people, shifted 10 percent of their spending to local businesses, together we would create $140 million in new revenue for the city. So to me, that’s kind of an astounding statistic, not only in that the money that you spend is literally an investment in your community, or it can be, but it also means that you can withhold that money from people that you don’t want to support. So it’s really a very…embargo is a very old form of protest. But you can do it on a very individual level, day to day, that I think of that as the $140 million that we will stop sending to large agribusinesses that are using it to lobby the farm bill and our political system.
So for me it’s like, what is the world I want to see? I want to spend my money supporting that world.
TM: You know, I read that you were raised by two vegetarians, and so I’m assuming… One of the things, of course, when you don’t eat processed foods, you have to really know how to cook. And so was that something of a challenge? Or had your two vegetarian parents taught you how to cook and you felt comfortable about that?
MK: Yeah, I think I was really lucky to… I know how to cook. My mom is a wonderful cook, and I sort of learned by watching her, by trying her recipes. So I’ve been cooking since I was in college, and I really love to cook. So that was certainly a factor that was in my favor, of I not only like to cook, I sort of love to do kitchen projects. So, for example, I made homemade yogurt. That’s just like fun to me, and I am certainly sympathetic that it’s not fun to everyone. But that helped me kind of…you know, I sort of had a spirit of adventure and I was like, “Oh, wheat! Maybe I’ll buy a hand-crank grinder and make my whole-wheat flour. That seems like a fun project.” So I certainly had kind of a sense of adventure going into it.
And I also, my cooking motto is “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” So, you know, I’m a good cook, I’m not a great cook necessarily. And the reason that I’m a good cook is that I cook! I cook myself breakfast, lunch and dinner almost every single day, and I try new things. When those things maybe don’t taste quite as good as I thought they would, I learn and I move on. So I really love…something that I’ve heard from the book is people who have been inspired to get back in their kitchen and try cooking again. And that sort of makes me so happy to hear that…you know, what I really wanted to do was make this very sort of simple act, which has become complicated for whatever reason, seem approachable again.
TM: Thank you very much for that, too, because I’m always chilled when I see that more and more people don’t know how to cook, and don’t cook, and I’m always worried about the millennials who do love food but don’t really want to spend a whole lot of time cooking. And at the same time, I’m also seeing—and here’s something that I think you said in an interview, it was that the importance of relationships has something to do with food. And so it isn’t as…Jean Feraca, on a radio show one time, said it isn’t just stuffing your mouth! It’s so much richer than that. And is that what you found during your year of trying to eat differently and eat less processed foods, or eat no processed foods, according to your own definition?
MK: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think there are so many levels of how food connects us to the people in our lives and helps build relationships. And one of them I found that I was not prepared for, I didn’t expect, is how much sort of my quest connected me to my community. So I started going to the farmers’ market every week. I joined a CSA program. And so, you know, when you show up for your CSA share every week, you start to get to know those people, and those people become your friends, those people become people you see at other events. And that happened time and again. I interviewed a cheese maker for this book, and then I saw her all over town and got to know her out of that context. So I felt like sort of my personal endeavor to unprocess my food system really connected me in this kind of amazing way to all the people in my community who are making food.
So that was one relationship. And the other one was sort of the relationships with the people I was eating that food with. One of the hardest things about my year unprocessed was eating out. So it’s really hard to eat out when you’re not eating refined sugar or refined flour, because they’re in everything. And it’s hard because you can’t know everything that’s in your food when you’re eating at a restaurant. You know, you can certainly ask a lot of questions to your server, as I did, but—
TM: (laughing) I bet you were fun to eat out with!
MK: Oh yeah! I mean, I had some wonderfully patient friends. But you know, at some point you have to kind of relinquish that and say, “Hey, I’m here with you. I’m going to give you, my friend, whoever I’m eating this meal with, I’m going to give you my attention rather than fretting about whether the marinara sauce has sugar.” So I sort of had to learn how to create that balance of being really aware and focused on what I was eating, and also connected to the people I was eating it with.
TM: Well, as someone who actually has been in the food industry for almost forty years and who has gone out to eat a lot with a lot of different people, I think that there’s a real value in doing, I think, as you describe it, in a more judicious way, but asking questions in restaurants, because that’s why restaurants are changing.
You are listening to Part 1 of a two-part interview with Megan Kimble. Tune in next week for Part 2.
You can listen to Rootstock Radio on the go at iTunes and Stitcher, and find us online at rootstock.coop/radio. Rootstock Radio is brought to you by Organic Valley Family of Farms.