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What’s Rachel Reading? Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food

Lately I’ve been balancing out some of my lighter summer cozy mystery and urban fantasy reading with books tackling weightier issues — among them, of course, being the topic of real food (because it meets real life!). This week’s real-food-read is Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food by Megan Kimble.

Ethical food choices

Kimble’s reasons for choosing to spend a year avoiding processed foods differ from mine (and she dives in much deeper than I’m willing to go); she focuses more broadly on our flawed food system, highlighting these larger issues through her personal experiences with eating unprocessed, and an extended exploration of what that actually means. As a mostly-vegetarian grad student who already participates in a CSA (and more), though, Kimble is already partly there when she begins — making the unprocessed leap a little gentler than it might prove otherwise. Also worth noting: She lives in Tucson, where the CSA and farmer’s markets appear to be year-round — this experiment would necessarily look a bit different in, say, Chicago or New York.

The book, however, is a fascinating exploration of what it really means to eat “unprocessed” and how that ties into larger questions of sustainability, animal welfare, and public health — think In Defense of Food meets Eat, Pray, Love. During her year of eating unprocessed, Kimble explores what it really means to eat locally and ethically and provides an honest accounting of how her thinking evolves throughout the year — and where she is willing to make compromises. (She seems to spend quite a lot of time enjoying wine with friends, for instance, even after spending some time delving into the economics of and additives in cheaper wine.)

Along the way

In Unprocessed, Kimble describes everything from learning to bake her own bread and make her own chocolate bars, to milling her own wheat, to milking a goat, to making her own sea salt, to taking a sheep-slaughtering class. You’ll come away from the book with a better understanding of why your food choices matter and what you can do as an individual to help repair our broken food system, and it might inspire you to take a look at your own food purchasing and eating habits.

Her experience six months in resonates pretty well with my own six months in to my mostly unprocessed journey this year:

After six months of unprocessed eating, my relationship to food has changed. I eat when I am hungry and stop when I am full. I’m eating whole foods, so what I eat satisfies me — it lingers and sticks in my stomach. Full, I focus better, exercise stronger, and sleep deeper — my mind mulls over the possibility of dinner rather than the repercussions of lunch. As I feel more confidence in my grasp of that which is processed, I start to enjoy the expansiveness I’m allowed in that I can eat anything that is unprocessed.

But as I read Unprocessed, her definitions of what it means to eat real food settle in to be much narrower than mine — all that wine being the exception. 😉

Real food, realistically

While the book was a good read and Kimble delves into important issues, I did take issue with the “meets real life” aspect of Unprocessed. Among my quibbles: Kimble earned just over $18,000 in 2012, the year she spent eating unprocessed. In an epilogue where she tallies up the year’s receipts, she estimates she spent about 27% of her gross income on food. This leaves me with so many questions, chief among them being: How did she pay her rent (not to mention electric, gas, water…)? What sacrifices did she have to make in order to shift such a significant portion of her income to her food budget?

It’s all well and good to talk about the real costs of real food and the hidden ways in which our food system subsidizes cheap processed foods, but how sustainable is this spending percentage for someone supporting a family? Someone paying off student loans or credit card debt? Someone spending a larger portion of their income on housing? Kimble does touch on her own privilege here and there, but only as fleeting mentions. She describes herself as “young, urban, and broke” — but if you can afford the realest of real food (Kimble even eschews Trader Joe’s by the end), without ever worrying about making rent… you’re not really that broke.

And as a corollary to this concern: Near the end of the book she does a real food version of the SNAP challenge, which involves choosing to purchase food for a week or a month using only the amount your family would receive per person on SNAP (food stamps). I would have liked to have seen some acknowledgement here that families on SNAP face different challenges, might have more physical jobs requiring more calories and filling meals, might be more crunched for time, and/or might not be satisfied with a week of, say, pureed broccoli-potato-carrot soup every night.

Worth the read

Despite my quibbles, however, Unprocessed is overall a worthwhile (if wordy) read, providing a timely exploration of how we can make more responsible food choices both personally and as a country. Recommended, with reservations.

What are you reading this week?

What have you been reading lately? Tell us about it! ? And, you can browse all the What’s Rachel Reading? book reviews here.


Sunday 25th of June 2017

I read in Time magazine that Megan even makes her own mustard to save money. Last time I bought mustard it was on clearance at Jewel for $1. There is no way I could make it for less than that. One thing about the CSA is that most of them are set up for families, and even small shares feed at least two people. Maybe she buys a share, and then gives half of it away, and that is why she spends so much on food.


Sunday 25th of June 2017

You should read the book; she gives snapshots into what she gets in her CSA and more. In 2012 when she wrote the book she had a CSA share for $20 -- and I think was able to use it all herself as a mostly-vegetarian?


Saturday 24th of June 2017

I love to cook, and I love to garden. It relaxes me. It is only work if you don't enjoy doing it. I bought 2 bunches of asparagus, 1 bag of mesclun, 1 bag of spinach, some sugar snap peas, and a kohlrabi last week at the farmer's market, and it was all tasty. If you don't enjoy cooking, you can hit the $2.99 a pound salad bar at Jewel on Saturday, but whatever I fix tastes better.


Saturday 24th of June 2017

I forgot about the Michigan strawberries I bought too.


Saturday 24th of June 2017

From my experience, it's expensive to eat unprocessed foods exclusively, unless you live on a a farm or have access to a good farmer's market. Even then, it is work to grow and process your own food - and your time has value. To me, that muddles the calculations.


Saturday 24th of June 2017

I bet she is getting really cheap rent, in exchange for babysitting or housesitting or something. There is a website that lists places that you can live for free or next to nothing by housesitting, tending the garden, or doing something else. I forget the name of the website. In Winnetka there is also a program where they will hook you up with a senior that does not want to live alone. It is much easier for a single person to do something like this. For somebody that is mostly vegetarian though, that is a lot to spend on food. I could see myself spending that much on food if I eat a lot of organic meat, and sustainable seafood.