How Philosophy Professors Eat: Manchester’s Steve Naragon

So we’re taking Rowan on a visit to Manchester College, and naturally I can’t resist lining up a chat with the professor who teaches environmental philosophy, a course that incorporates food ethics.

Photo from the Manchester College website

“I’m not sure if I’ll have much that is of interest for you,” Dr. Steve Naragon writes back, noting that he’s “at least two Michael Pollan books behind” in keeping up with America’s best known food ethicist. “But I guess my readings have always influenced how I eat.”

We track down Dr. Naragon in a remote corner of the school’s ancient administration building. He’s a trim guy, quiet yet intense, with graying hair but the youthful demeanor of somebody who bikes to work every day.

We discuss the college and Rowan’s interests and impressions, then move on to food ethics and my usual nit-picky personal dietary questions. The following questions and answers are derived from that conversation as well as some followup e-mails:

Q. How has studying philosophy affected your diet?

Dr. Naragon cites two books as having the greatest effect on his emerging thoughts about food and eating when he was starting out in philosophy: Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac.

Singer’s book exposed him not just to the harsh realities of eating animals, but the treatment of animals as well. “At the time, I was an economic vegetarian,” he said, but reading that book made that into a more mindful act rather than a byproduct of his finances. He relaxed his stance on eating meat after his kids were born, but expects he’ll go back to a being a full-time vegetarian once he’s an empty-nester.

As for A Sand County Almanac, Leopold “doesn’t talk about food at all in that book, or at least not much, but he does talk about the rightful place of humans in the world, and in particular he encourages us to consider ourselves as ‘plain citizens’ of the natural world,” Naragon says. “Once you get that point of view down, the other things — like the purchases you make at the grocery store — tend to fall in to place on their own.”

Overall, Naragon says his personal food philosophy has more to do with environmental concerns than health issues, though there’s obviously some overlap there. He prefers to buy local whenever possible — especially eggs and produce from local farmers — and avoids excessive packaging when he can. At the supermarket, he notes, “there are entire aisles I just never go down.”

“I strive to live intentionally, to be a little more deliberate,” he says. “It sounds hard, but after a while you just don’t even think about it.”

Q. How do your students react to discussions of food ethics?

A. This draws a laugh. “Food is almost as personal as you can get,” he says, noting that some people just don’t like scrutinizing their own personal dietary habits.

In discussions of food ethics, Naragon encourages interested students to be flexible in any philosophical shifts they may choose to embrace. Vegetarianism, for instance, is “fairly popular” at Manchester, but can still be a difficult shift to make.

“I tell people to not be so rigid,” he says. “Don’t give up if you can’t make everything fit some ideal version of how it should be.”

Naragon notes that he learns from his students as well, citing one research paper that led him to switch his brand of tomato juice to Red Gold, not just because it’s a regional company but also because of its business practices.

“As a project in class, I often have my students choose, for their research paper, some consumer product for which they then write a ‘cradle to grave’ analysis, looking at the environmental effects of the item’s creation/manufacture, delivery, consumption, and disposal, as well as any social effects (on the workers, or those living near the plant, or whatever),” he says.

“The idea is to encourage the students to become more sensitive to how interconnected their quotidian activities are with the rest of the world — and in particular, how a significant expression of their value commitments is in what they buy.”

Q. Besides Singer and Leopold, what other books would you suggest to a student who expressed an interest in the philosophy of food?

A. Naragon says he would recommend any of Michael Pollan’s books, as well as Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable Miracle, about the author’s year of eating nothing that wasn’t grown on her farm or by her neighbors in Virginia.

And if they were interested in a good simple-living cookbook, he adds, he’s always been partial to The More-With-Less Cookbook, by Doris Janzen Longacre.

Q. So let’s talk about your diet. What do you eat for breakfast?

A. “I eat oatmeal every morning, purely out of habit any more.” It’s a 30-year habit, and it’s one he feels especially good about, knowing that “there’s at least one ‘reasonable’ thing that I’m doing in my life: eating something that is inexpensive, good for me, and easy to prepare.

“One small goal of mine is to live a life as ‘sustainable’ as possible.  It’s hard to give a precise definition to that word, but practices involving little money and few energy-inputs are likely more sustainable than those that don’t.  Those are the practices that I would encourage others to consider, because they have so little negative effect on the world.

“That’s why I prefer to ride a bicycle, when I can, rather than drive a car, and that’s why I prefer eating oatmeal.  I’m terrible at following any of this advice, of course, and so my best bet is to develop habits that are more or less in line with this goal of sustainability.  If I had to think about it every day, I’d not get much done, so I try to choose the right habits and hope for the best.”

Q. What about lunch?

He bikes home for lunch, noting sheepishly that it’s only two blocks. He’ll usually have an egg (he buys his from a local woman), V8 juice — though lately he’s been drinking Red Gold juice, because of the student’s paper he mentioned earlier — cottage cheese and apple sauce.

He says he used to eat more pasta and rice, but he’s since noticed that “carbs tend to put me to sleep.” Now he tries to eat more protein and fewer carbohydrates at lunch and feels like it keeps him more focused in the afternoon.

Q. So is biking your primary form of exercise, then?

A. “I probably should walk, in terms of getting the best exercise,” he says. But he’s always in a hurry, so he tends to ride his bike, even if he’s just going over to the campus library.

Naragon notes that when and his wife lived in South Bend earlier in their careers, he used to load up the baby and ride his bike to the grocery store. He doesn’t do that now, even though his “babies” are now in high school and college, because he’s always in a hurry.

Still, he notes, because of his family’s close proximity to campus, sometimes “entire weeks go by” where he doesn’t drive at all. “I can’t imagine driving a car to work,” he says.

Q. What about sugar?

A. This draws another laugh, a wince, and a return to the “need to be flexible” line of thinking. Before he and his wife had kids, he says, they didn’t use sugar at all, just honey. “But now we’ve got our (container) of sugar just like everyone else.”

This, he notes, is another likely change they’ll make as empty-nesters — a return to the days of primarily using honey as a sweetener.

Q. So do you ever “pig out”?

A. “Well ….” Naragon says, “what do you mean by pig out?” Because the first thing that strikes him about this question is the “pigging out” involved in the act of eating even small amounts of highly processed, elaborately packaged foods. “There’s a whole of energy that goes into producing that,” he says.

Naragon said it bothers him that Americans spend so much more than other countries on food — costs that go up exponentially when packaging is involved.

“I’d have to look up that figure on how much more energy a U.S. citizen consumes than the world average, but here are two figures I have in my notes: that the average U.S. citizen consumes roughly 50 times as many resources as the average Indian citizen, and that the richest one-fifth of the world consumes 86% of the total resources, while the poorest one-fifth consume only 1.3%.  That’s an imbalance that I’d like, in my own small way, to push my life against.”

And in terms of the quantity of food he eats personally?

If anything, these days he aims to try for under-eating rather than overeating, he says.

“I’ve been trying to make friends with hunger,” he explains. “If you think about it, what’s wrong with feeling a little bit hungry?”

Not only is that physical sensation, that slight edge, more in line with the human condition over the centuries, he notes, but to “wake up already full” because you’ve pigged out the night before is just … well, gross (my word, not his.) “Food tastes better when you’re hungry, too,” he adds.

A few days later, his comments begin to bother him, because he doesn’t want to sound like he’s insensitive to the plight of hunger in the world.

“There are so many people in the world, even in our own country, who know hunger all too well and are dying for lack of food,” he wrote in a followup email. “The last thing I’d want anyone to think was that I was developing some sort of apologia for hunger as such!”

“This hunger thing was aimed just at myself, and perhaps at my overfed cousins, who all could stand to become better acquainted with a feeling that all too many of our neighbors can’t escape,” he added. “And there’s a world of difference, of course, between how that hunger feels when you know you can go make yourself a sandwich anytime you like, and how it must feel when the pantry truly is bare and your children’s ribs are pressed against their skin.”

Q. I often ask people what they would order for a final meal if they were on Death Row. What would you do in that situation?

A.  Naragon thinks this over. He finds himself thinking more in terms of what he wouldn’t have, rather than what he would want.

“Well, it certainly wouldn’t be anything like a Big Mac,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to go out with some (half-digested) animal in my stomach.”

Here he gets sidetracked a bit, thinking of conversations he’s had on trips to Germany in which people say, horrified, that they could never come to America because they can’t imagine what they would eat, living in a culture that they perceive as being dominated by Twinkies and other junk food.

Finally he says maybe he’d just have “some nice cheeses and a good bottle of wine.”

But then he thinks about it a little more and decides the most appropriate thing to do might be to avoid eating anything at all. “I’d probably just fast,” he says.

Q. Anything you’d like to add?

A. Naragon notes again the importance of flexibility in terms of pursuing a better life, of attempting to live out your emerging philosophical principles.

“You do what you can,” he says. “You have to bend a little in order to lead a principled life — otherwise you’ll get frustrated and just give up.”

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