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40 years of training expertise

This year sees the 40th anniversary of the Health Food Institute, the industry’s own training body which has done so much to give independent health food retailing the edge that other sectors lack. Ray Hill delves into the archives.

Ray Hill is Founder and Secretary of the Health Food Institute

Early in 1979 it occurred to me that the health food industry had an organisation for manufacturers (the HFMA) and one for the independent retail trade (the NAHS), but there was no organisation that represented the people in the industry. I originally envisaged it as representing those people who had succeeded in achieving a Diploma in Health Food Retailing issued by the Health Food Training School, then a subsidiary of the NAHS, ably managed by Kell Sainsbury and his wife, Pat.

These ex-students who, at that time, were taught in classes (not by correspondence or online as it is today) how to greet, treat, assist and advise the customers of health food stores, had no contact with others through an organisation. And it was this proposal which I presented to the NAHS council 40 years ago. Little did I know then how much would change as the years passed.

The four principal objects of the Institute are:

Six guarantors were appointed who became the first members of the General Council, and Founder Fellows. They were:

Sadly, all have passed on save myself who, after a variety of interesting positions in this industry, has for the last 30 years been dutifully ensconced as proprietor of Sunshine Health Shop in Stroud, Gloucestershire.

As a result of David Canter’s contacts in the higher echelons of society we were introduced to Donald Jackson, Her Majesty's calligrapher, who very kindly consented to design our original logo and letterhead. That was used until the Institute’s name change in 2002 to conform with modern times.

Generous support

Pressure on the finances of the NAHS in 1998 meant it could no longer afford the costs of the Health Food Training School, and the School soldiered on until 2002 when the Institute had to come to its rescue on the basis that, other than its Fellows, the training was the source of its membership, and an independent professional qualification was important for the status of health food store credibility.

This naturally placed a financial cost on the Institute which was and has been met by patronage from many companies over the years. Independent retail training in the health food trade would not have survived and, dare I say, will not last without the support of patrons and benefactors.

During the early part of the first decade of the new Millennium, the Institute was witnessing a change in the makeup of the membership. Not only were many of the original retailer members reaching retirement and leaving the trade, but the number of those who by dedicated service to the industry had achieved the honour of a Fellowship was growing. Fellows from manufacturing, wholesaling, marketing and publishing, along with nutritional therapists, herbalists, homoeopaths and others who, by their exceptional contribution to the health food industry had, on a unanimous vote by the General Council, become an important body within its membership. And it was justly deserved that its exclusively retailer General Council be open to those Fellows from other functions servicing the industry, thus resulting in removing the retailing aspect from its title and becoming the Health Food Institute.

An industry focal point

An Inaugural Luncheon for Founder Fellows took place in the Waterloo Room at the Institute of Directors in Pall Mall in December 1982. Walter Goldsmith, their Director General, was invited to speak and give direction for the Institute’s future.

1983 saw the first gathering of its Fellows and Members with a formal dinner at Grocers Hall in Princes Street, London, the home of the Worshipful Company of Grocers, one of the twelve Great Livery companies of the City of London.

For many years the Institute’s Annual Seminar and Lunch adopted a similar pattern, without the evening attire, but business suit and dress, and Colin Tophill filling the toastmaster role splendidly. Held with barely an exception at the Royal Over-Seas League in St James Street, London, it is only in recent years that the seating plan and dress code been relaxed to create a friendly and relaxing ambience where one can mix and converse during the breaks and over lunch.

James Henry Cook

The 1998 Seminar and Lunch moved to the Grand Hotel, Birmingham, to celebrate the centenary of the opening of the UK’s first health food store by James Henry Cook, who also coined the name by which the retail trade is known today.

It was opened in a grand piece of Birmingham architecture at the northern end of Corporation Street, next to what were the original Law Courts. Named Pitman’s Health Food Store in recognition of Sir Isaac Pitman, who was a vegetarian, it initially occupied the entire building including a vegetarian hotel and restaurant. As a member of the Birmingham branch of the Vegetarian Society, Mr Cook established what has been the vegetarian trading ethic for most of Britain's health food stores for the last 120 years.

We were thrilled to have persuaded Mr Cook’s 90-year old daughter, Kathleen Keleny, to be our principal guest, who followed a lifetime vegan diet, having run a health food store in Coventry, a guest house in Wotton-under-Edge in the Cotswolds, and was author of numerous books associated with her love of cooking.

Another important guest to add some light entertainment to the speeches was Thelma Barlow, the actress from Coronation Street who later played the role of Dolly Bellfield in the sitcom Dinnerladies.

Transforming training

Much of the Institute’s work and attention has inevitably focused on the training aspect since it took on the task – 2,668 students have achieved the Certificate in Health Food Retailing (now called Diploma Part One) and 655 have succeeded in obtaining the full Diploma in Health Food Retailing. There are currently 259 people participating in the Certificate/Diploma Part One Course and 93 working toward obtaining the Diploma. We owe a debt of gratitude to the Institute’s administrator Alison Collingwood, who has patiently and diligently seen many of these people through to success.

Originally, only candidates who had a Diploma qualified for membership of the HFI. However, as the content of the courses expanded to meet new and changing legislation and became more comprehensive in their content, Associate Membership is now open to Certificate/Diploma Part One holders.

In order to meet an increasing demand, the Diploma Part One (Certificate) course was adapted and upgraded to go online. The Diploma course is proceeding along the same path. Both are independently accredited by the International Education Board. This entitles the successful student to receive the Nutritional Advisor Award and benefit from Health Store membership of the Federation of Nutritional Therapy Practitioners (FNTP) and Associate Membership of the Health Food Institute.

Closer liaison with medicine

The HFI is ever striving to raise the standards of retail training and is seeking not just to liaise with other organisations dedicated to nutrition, but to encourage a closer working relationship between those qualified in its training, and who are employed in health stores, and GP practices.

As the population, and doctors particularly, come to accept that food is our medicine and medicine is our food, the Institute sees an opportunity to ease the GP’s burden by introducing the professionally trained staff of health food stores to advise on dietary matters. There is no better place than the health food store to meet particular or special dietary needs.

Where next?

As we head toward the next decade, it is the goal of the present General Council to raise the profile of the Health Food Institute within and beyond the health food industry in its endeavour to contribute to the wellbeing of society through a safe and sound knowledge of nutrition and service from qualifying health stores.

This can begin in the health food store with members wearing their Health Food Institute membership badge and prominent display of their training qualification award along with certification of their HFI membership. It is these symbols that give the public confidence, not just in the advice and attention offered freely, but in the commodities available within the store.

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