Brian Lawless: Dinnertime and the lost art of eating
Tom: Kentucky native — Lexington native, in fact — Brian Lawless is the business development manager for Alltech in North America. His passion is discovering and delivering solutions for the sustainable nutrition of plants, animals and people. His topic at this year’s ONE17 conference has to do with people in general and what’s been happening to the way we dine in particular. We thank you for joining us, Brian.
Brian: Glad to be here.
Tom: Let’s begin with a broad question: What’s the role of food in culture?
Brian: We ask the question, “How should we think about food? What should we look at in regards to food?” Alltech is an animal health and nutrition company. So, the basic answer is to say, “Oh, it’s nutrition. That’s where it is.” But if you look at the Latin word for “nutrition,” it also means “to nurture.” The question I ask is, “Is the way we produce food actually nurturing society, nurturing culture in such a way that we can grow?” That’s been fun for me to look at.
Tom: The shared family meal used to be a given. It was an ideal. Breakfast and lunch have always been a little “iffy” because of daily schedules, but suppertime has, for generations, been a family’s chance to sit down and break bread together while catching up on the day. What happened to that tradition?
Brian: It’s not going so well. For the last 20 years, we’ve seen a 33 percent decline in family meals. I have often heard people say, “I have sports to get to,” if they have kids, or, “I have a job.” You may have both parents working. You have all these situations where food then becomes an afterthought. Then we go back to the question of if we’re nurturing. If we’re eating, we may be eating in the car, and that’s probably the culture we see right now. We’ve gone from being a very communal food culture to very much an individual food culture. I think that’s a challenge because that isolates and separates the way we eat. I don’t think that’s the intent — it’s not the way we were supposed to eat.
Tom: As we move away from nightly gatherings around the table, what’s been the social impact on kids?
Brian: For kids, it’s big. From a timing standpoint, if we dial back 60 years, a meal took 90 minutes. You’d get there. You’d set the table. You’d sit down with your family. Today, the average time spent on meals is about seven to 11 minutes. I think the biggest thing we’re missing is the ability to connect. There are obvious effects, for example — and data supports this — that kids who get a meal with their parents three or more times a week are 40 percent more likely to do well in school. They’re likely to eat more vegetables, drink less soda, have a more balanced diet in terms of sodium and fat, and are less likely to engage in high-risk behaviors like drugs or tobacco. So, all this science is saying that, while eating with your family is not a direct connection to these factors, it has a significant impact overall.
Tom: Even when we’re together these days, smart devices have a way of interfering.
Brian: They do. I would say you need to be conscious of what’s going on. I’m a millennial. I use technology. I engage with it, but I think we need to make that choice to say, “Hey, not during a meal.” When you’re with a friend getting a meal — whether at home or out at a restaurant — either leave the phone in the car, set the phone face down or do something so technology is not in the way. I really think there’s a power in actually connecting, telling stories and actually engaging with what’s going on. You can’t get that with social media. You can’t get that with a phone or a TV.
Tom: I think you just touched on this a couple of minutes ago, but let’s drill down into it. Are we eating alone more frequently, and what are the consequences of that?
Brian: We absolutely are. Forty-six percent of all adult meals are eaten alone. I think we’re a part of what I would call a “metanarrative” in our food industry. The food industry is telling us that food needs to be convenient — it needs to be available anywhere, anytime. The way we think about food is in terms of efficiency: How quickly can I go from a state of being hungry to a state of being full? Then, during that time, how can I be entertained? Can I watch TV? Can I look at my phone?
All that because we live “busy lives.” And, frankly, I don’t like that. I think that’s where the narrative is trying to drive us. The thoughts I’ve had lately are about how we engage with that narrative and engage with it in a different way — rewrite that narrative because I believe we have a choice.
This convenience has actually left us with more options. When food is convenient, it means other things are convenient. When things are efficient, it means you can then choose to engage with other things in a different way. I’ve really been trying to process this: Okay, what does that look like? I think there are both unintended consequences and unexpected opportunities that come when you actually engage with food in a way that is nurturing as opposed to just nutritious.
Tom: How about the meal-bundling concept? I’m thinking of Blue Apron or HelloFresh, which have brought back the possibility of being able to work a full day and come home tired but make a meal conducive to bringing everybody around the table. Have those options made a big difference?
Brian: They have. I think it’s a great step. It’s probably not the ideal compared to the pinnacle of going to the store, picking something and taking it home. But if that’s not a reality, I think something like Blue Apron is a great alternative because it allows you to get home. It uses technology. It uses convenience, now in a way that’s advantageous and allows you to connect with someone.
I think that goes back to that communal language of saying, “Look, I’ve cooked this. I’ve prepared it.” There’s another unexpected opportunity that comes with services like Blue Apron: Say you get this great marinated chicken and you completely burn it. That’s not good. All of a sudden, as you serve it, you have a story to tell. You say, “Hey, sorry, I’m going to learn how to cook this better next time.” I think those are those are human moments. That sometimes gets lost when we isolate ourselves and just get fast food.
Tom: As you also mentioned earlier, we know that the fundamental purpose of food is sustenance, but we have made much more of it. Haven’t we? In light of that, does it appear that we’ve lost the point of food altogether?
Brian: How we’re structuring our food culture and the way we’re producing food essentially takes people out of the equation. And what I mean by that is, the way that we’re feeding our animals, we’re applying those same principles to people. I think we spend so much time and care in producing animals. I met a beef producer just over the weekend — Tim White. He’s a producer here in Central Kentucky with his own cow/calf operation. He says, “For a year, I look after these animals and I give them my best care and I ship them off, they go to their feed yards, then get processed and end up in hamburgers.” To me, I was hearing that he takes so much care of the animals and the food that is processed — let’s not just stumble right before the finish line when we eat it. In other words: It gets processed, then packed, then shipped to the grocery store. What do we do from there? There’s a moment in that final phase before eating when I think we need to focus on how we get that right.
Tom: That brings to mind a pretty prevalent Native American tradition of honoring the meal that you’re about to consume for that reason.
Brian: Yes. That was always a big deal for me because of my family. I’m from Central Kentucky, but my mom’s side of the family is from Rhode Island. When we would visit them — they’re French Canadian — we would eat meat pies. For me, that wasn’t part of my particular food culture in Kentucky. It was my mom’s. It was my family’s. It was our family’s culture and tradition. I learned something: It wasn’t about the food itself, but it was about our culture, our family. It’s what brought us around the table. To me, more than anything, it signified that we’re family when we ate that. Again, when we go from this communal to individual culture, that’s lost.
Tom: What would you say is the upside to being honest with ourselves and recognizing current trends, which have taken us away from the family dinner table? Being honest about recognizing it, what shall we do about it?
Brian: Someone once told me that when you talk to people, you also learn how to talk to yourself. I think there’s a weird process that happens. When you go to the kitchen table, you can’t hide anymore. You’re sitting down. There’s no leaving. And I think that allows us to learn how to engage with tension, even within the current political structure and current social structure. I think sometimes we pin ourselves in these sides on social media. We hide behind the “walls” of our screens. But when we bring it to a table, all of a sudden, the tension and the ability to connect — all these things that are both difficult and good become opportunities. I think that’s what sometimes gets lost, and I think that’s the opportunity that we can recapture with food and we can bring it together.
Tom: If you had to pin it down, what would you say about this work you most enjoy?
Brian: When I think about food, I think about kitchen tables. When I think about kitchen tables, I think about the people around kitchen tables. And for me, I’m passionate about people. My grandfather raised beef cattle just outside of Danville and Hustonville, Kentucky. Working with Alltech, being able to say, “Hey, it’s funny — my life took me in a different direction.” I studied business and economics. But I’m still engaging in the world of agriculture. I feel like in some ways I’m back in the family business, and I’m really proud of that.
I love my family and I get to engage in something that my family has done forever. It makes me passionate. It makes me excited about it. It makes me want to do a better job. When I see these technologies and opportunities, I know that we can make changes for the better. I love seeing the ability to use technology in a way that allows better food to be put on the table, that allows people to connect around that table. And for me, that’s amazing.
Tom: Brian Lawless is business development manager for Alltech North America. Thank you so much.
Brian: Awesome. Thank you.