When 26-year-old Megan Kimble became intrigued by the idea of unprocessed eating, she wasn’t entirely sure what the term meant. After all, she writes, nearly all food is processed by the time we eat it—chopped, sautéed, fermented or folded into batter—“and often it is the better for it.”

But she also knew that some of our food is too processed, organic or not—and so she set out to discover where, exactly, the line should be drawn.

It took her a whole year. Her debut book, Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Food, documents Kimble’s shifting definitions, as she grinds wheat berries into flour, brews mead in a bucket, harvests salt from the ocean, and tries her hand at slaughtering sheep. Along the way, she explores all kinds of topics—from the preservatives that give industrially produced food a longer shelf life, to the planned obsolescence of our food gadgets; from the tension between convenience and consequences, to the power of dollars spent locally.

What sets Unprocessed apart from the last decade’s rash of books about the shortcomings of our food system is Kimble’s status as a broke, busy graduate student living in arid Tucson, Ariz., on an income of less than $20,000 a year. In a cheerful, clear voice, she admits her struggles and compromises. Her garden plot, for example, is largely a failure. Like many members of her generation, her social life unfolds largely in restaurants and bars, and the book smartly tackles how to navigate mostly processed menus, what makes alcohol processed (or not), and how a commitment to eating real food can either intersect or clash with the desire to be a part of community. “If I didn’t … engage in the messiness, of eating out and eating with another, then even if I ate perfectly unprocessed, I wouldn’t have really lived unprocessed,” Kimble writes. “Abstain though we try, today’s world is one of moderation. Of trying and failing, and then trying and half-succeeding.”

The book is full of fresh insights about the way communities are tied to food systems. Eating processed food, Kimble discovers, is a natural consequence of our move-wherever-the-jobs-exist economy. Yet she questions the tendency to “(outsource) to others those key activities that define the day-to-day. … What is life if not the day to day? … The tasks we have decided to label mundane … are (those that) accumulate into relationships and memories.”

Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food

By Megan Kimble

William Morrow

352 pages, $15.99