Here is the full transcript of author Megan Kimble’s TEDx Talk: Unprocessed: How I gave up processed foods and why it matters @ TEDxTucsonSalon conference. Megan Kimble is the author of Unprocessed and is the managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona, a local food magazine.
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Megan Kimble – Managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona
What do you eat? No, what do you really eat? It’s a Wednesday night, by the time you get out of here, it might be eight o’clock. You stop at the store on the way home to see if they have kale. But, is it organic? Is it local? Is it in season? Do you even like kale? I get it. It is overwhelming, all of the choices we’re faced with today. All of the things we’re asked to consider about our food.
A little over two years ago, I set myself a challenge: one year without processed food. The first questions you might ask are: “Why would you do that?” and “What makes a food processed?” And I’ll get to those.
But tonight, I want to focus on that choice of a Wednesday night, when you’re wondering what to eat. I am a food writer, so on some level, I’m paid to think about that choice — I’m the editor of Edible Baja Arizona, a local food magazine based here in Tucson — but I also happen to believe that these choices matter, that they impact the food system, and that we have the power to unprocess the foods we eat.
So what makes a food processed? Of course, all foods are processed. Agriculture is a kind of process, so is cooking, fermenting, dicing, preserving. All foods are processed and often, they are better for it. But increasingly, they are not. Study after study has shown that it is less important what we’re eating than how we’re eating it.
Think about the difference between corn on the cob, versus corn chips versus high fructose corn syrup. Same source, three very different foods because of their level of processing. I spent a lot of time wrangling over the particulars, over the many things that we find on our ingredient labels these days.
But for me, what is processed, comes down to a quote from of all people, Mr. Rogers, which says, “There is a difference between things people make and things that are made.” There is a difference between foods people make with their hands, or could bake, and foods that are made by machines. People can make corn into corn tortillas. People can’t really make high fructose corn syrup without access to a laboratory and an advanced chemistry degree.
So I spent a year thinking about processed food, I wrote a book about it, but tonight I want to focus on just three processes.
The first is the process of how a food gets from its source to your table. How vegetables get from the ground, in Mexico for example, to a grocery store in Arizona.
The second process is what happens to you when you actually eat that food. How your body responds when you drink a glass of apple juice versus eating an apple.
And the third process is a little more complicated, it is the process of how the foods we buy impact the communities we live in. Often this process revolves around money; it is the economy of food. And it is this last one, that of consumer spending that I find the most potential for un-processing.
So how does a food get from its source to your table? This is the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales. It is the largest inland port of entry in the U.S. In the winter, 70% of produce on supermarket shelves comes from Mexico, and most of it comes through here. I like to say that it is the Ellis island for Mexican produce.
So a watermelon. How does a watermelon get from the ground in Hermosillo to a Safeway in Tucson? Well it starts on a farm, a really big farm, 1,000 acres of watermelon. A migrating field crew goes in there and harvests them within a day, they pack them up, put them on a semi truck, 40,000 pounds of vegetables, and send them north to the border. There’s a flurry of paperwork, the border patrol, FDA, USDA, and finally, it arrives here to a 35-degree warehouse in Nogales. There are about 100 of them there, and I spent a few days wandering through these warehouses. And let me tell you, the scale is staggering.
At this particular warehouse, during their high season, every single day, they might move in and out 150,000 melons. I remember standing in this warehouse full of mangoes, and it being inconceivable to me, how this mass of fruit might ever just become one mango in one person’s kitchen. The system is vast. And its survival depends on pesticides, refrigeration, and semi trucks.
Compare that to this. This is what I eat. This is one week share from the Tucson CSA, the community supported agriculture program that I’m a member of. This produce comes from a farm owned by a guy named Frank. Yes, we call him farmer Frank. Farmer Frank sends his two employees out into the field, they harvest enough produce for about 150 shares, wash it, put it on a truck, and send it to Tucson. There’s not a lot of storage, and there are no pesticides.
According to a study by USDA, almost 60% of conventionally grown produce is still contaminated with pesticides, even after it has been washed. If that’s not processed, what is?
So you have these two watermelons: one from Hermosillo, one from near Tucson. What makes one more processed than the other? Well, the first difference is how they are grown. Conventionally versus organically, on a monoculture or on a diversified field.
And the second is the process of how that food gets to you. On average, 91 cents of every dollar we spend on food goes to the middleman. It doesn’t go to the people who grow our food. So, when you buy food that’s gone through this vast system, you are supporting that 91 cents.
On the other hand, when you buy food from a CSA or a farmers market, you are helping to ensure that people who grow your own food get more than 9 cents on every dollar.
So let’s go to the second process. Once that food has gotten to you, what happens to your body when you actually eat it? Sugar is a good example of how the what of a particular food is less important than the how. A lot of people ask me, “Is eating unprocessed hard?” And the answer to that question is sugar. Sugar is in everything. Before I go there, I will say I love sugar. I have such a voracious sweet tooth, that when I was a kid my mom instituted a rule called “One sweet a day”, on which I was allowed one sweet everyday instead of all the sweets, all the days.
But sugar is in everything, apart from that. It is in, for example, Blueberry-flavored flax seeds. The spinach of breakfast confections. High in sugar. This particular brand of mustard is evidently a mix of sugar, honey, and a little high fructose corn syrup thrown in for good measure.