Podcast: Catching up with Harvey Ells
In the latest podcast, the course leader of our new Nutrition BSc talks about what students can expect from the degree.
Harvey also discusses his professional background in the food industry, his research into various aspects of retail and why we all need to change our dietary habits.
Listen to the podcast by clicking ‘play’ in the link below. Alternatively, most of the interview is transcribed on this page.
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My role here is predominately teaching. Historically, it’s been on the retail marketing, retail management courses and the hospitality management courses. I’ve also done a number of retail KTP projects with food SMEs. And at the moment I’m working on the validation and the delivery for the new Nutrition BSc Honours award.
And we’ll be talking about that new nutrition course very shortly. Be good to get to know a bit more about yourself first. So what’s your background and what is your path here to the University of Brighton?
Well, a long time ago, I started my career training as a butcher and then I went working in the supermarket sector. And I worked for a company called Safeway who were one of the first global supermarket chains. I had a good career with them, I was a retail store manager and then I moved into other aspects of operations, training, development, recruitment and deployment. So some specialist HR roles. And after that, the corporate environment, I thought I could do that with a change. It was a little bit insular, in fairness, and profit-orientated. So I took a career break and actually came to the University of Brighton to study and as a result of that an opportunity came up as a retail lecturer. I always enjoyed the training aspect of the job when I worked for Safeway, so ultimately I took the post and have not really looked back since.
What was your draw to food and retail in the first place? What made you decide to train to be a butcher first of all and then go into food retail?
I think it just interested me. I mean, I’ll be honest, there were aspects of kind of food poverty that I saw around me as a child. So I think I don’t know whether I took the wrong kind of interest in the food industry, but it was always something that actually fascinated me or something that I tended to observe probably more than other things that I saw around me. But it was predominantly where I used to grow up. There was this big new supermarket that turned up and it was a real ‘wow’ factor. New retail was very much about a new social event actually happening as well as a business event. So everybody in the town tended to get drawn to that. And I think my interest really just stemmed from there. It was definitely seen as one of the bigger, more positive, forward thinking employers. So it just went from there, really.
And then you came to the university eventually to study. You’ve obviously stayed on and ended up moving into academia. So what was it that made you want to go into teaching?
I wasn’t learning much more from retail. I knew that there were other things that I wanted to do over the course of my career. At the time, I had been studying part-time with the Open University, who were pretty good, and I kind of got an appetite for academia. So I’ve always pushed myself to try and learn things. And that’s really what drew me towards it. I mean, to have the combination of being able to learn more and to impart some of the knowledge that I actually had from industry and to be able to deliver a good quality of an education and see the results over a short period of time – that appealed to me.
What would you describe as your approach to teaching? How do you like to get students involved when you’re teaching them?
I like to just talk to them in a kind of pragmatic and practical way, obviously, to give them a sound academic underpinning to anything we’re actually discussing, but to offer them a range of different perspectives on the topics that are under review. I think it’s important that there is in addition to the, let’s call it the academic qualification and the framework, the life knowledge that sits in parallel with it. And I’ll always try to bring in current examples, stress the importance of having an awareness of current affairs and try and offer a range of different perspectives on whatever the topic under consideration is.
And let’s talk about the nutrition course, which is brand new here. How long has that been in the works?
It’s been thought about for a number of years, but we got the go-ahead to validate it last November, and there’s been quite an intense period with all of the academics across the university that are involved in teaching aspects of food. So we first advertised it in December last year and we’ve got our first cohort starting this September. So it’s been quite a fast-paced journey, but we think we’ve got a good quality product and we’re certainly looking forward to getting our first cohort in and starting to work with them.
I guess it’s kind of a bit of a unique course in some ways, because it draws upon different schools and different expertise.
Yeah. I mean, there’s a number of different areas which custom and practice, we’ve taught well across the university from the public health perspective, from the from the medical school perspective, one of the team is introducing a lot of elements of nutritional education into the medical curriculum in the School of Sport and Service Management we always taught subjects like sport nutrition, but it draws all of those together, while at the same time introducing, from my perspective, lots of elements of food, consumer behaviour, food choices and topics which are equally important to somebody. It’s actually studying nutrition as a discipline.
How much of an undertaking is it to pull together everyone and create this course? Has it been a big challenge?
Procedurally, it’s been a big challenge. It has been exciting. But I think there is a willingness amongst the academics who have historically taught food, nutrition, food, consumer behaviour – everybody knew that it was a good idea. Everybody knew that it needed to happen. So there hasn’t been any resistance at all in getting the thing actually put together and validated so that part of it has been easy. I guess the difficult part is yet to come, because we’ve got to make sure that the all of the teaching materials and the resourcing is spot on from day one. But we’re all committed to that and we know that we can good do a good job.
I imagine it’s quite a popular topic because at the moment there’s so much focus on wellbeing.
I think I think you’re right. And increasingly, people are paying much more attention to aspects of food policy, which maybe 5 or 10 years ago people weren’t paying any attention to at all. I think the issue is that we potentially we’ve never had so much choice in terms of food. We can have any kind of food whenever we want it at a range of different prices. And increasingly, we still have a number of significant issues. The health concern is the more obvious one. But The Lancet recently published an article talking about a syndemic, when not only are our diets not good for us, but actually they’re not great for the planet as well. If you look at the amount of land that’s used, for example, in meat production, fundamentally it can’t go on, and we need to come up with new systems. We need to modify what it is that we eat. We need to cut down the amount of meat that we eat and we need well-trained, well-rounded alumni with nutrition degrees to actually be able to help facilitate that.
We’ve all got to change. We’ve all got to eat less meat. And if we don’t do it voluntarily, then those choices might be restricted, edited by the supermarkets or alternatively, we just won’t be able to buy certain things. So, I mean, the fact that there are more vegans around, more people that label themselves as vegetarians around, it’s a real positive. Whatever happens in the next few weeks with Brexit, people will be thinking probably in some depth about what it is that they’re eating, how much they’re eating and how the food supply chain actually works.
That’s what I was getting at actually about the fact that a lot more people are thinking a lot more about especially what they eat and enjoy. A lot of people are cutting out a lot more meat. So people are starting to change their habits a bit, aren’t they? That’s quite positive.
I think it is. And this is where some of the more visible campaigns that you do actually see on social media will help in that process. I think we still for many people have a very, very narrow focus of different types of foods that we eat. For those of us that can choose and can afford to choose them, we will probably need to do a little bit more work on eating more of certain things and less of certain things. But I think on the other side of it, we also need to think about those people that actually don’t have a choice in what it is that they’re eating on a day-to-day basis. And when we look at what it is that we can do as a wider society to make sure that there’s better quality diets for everyone to consume, particularly children.
What would you say to someone, a student that’s looking to come and study nutrition here at the University of Brighton, how would you convince them to come here?
I think we’re passionate about what it is that we’re doing. There will be a currency to it because we haven’t taught a full nutrition degree before. But we’ve got a new facility that we’re just redeveloping, the Culinary Art Studio, which historically has been used for the hospitality programs, and it still will be used for that for the next couple of years, putting in a mini lab within the school of Sport and Service Management. We’ve still got all five BASES, accredited sports labs and other facilities that the students can actually use. So essentially, there is a space that’s been created for the nutrition cohort. This will give them an identity. But it will also enable them to integrate very, very quickly with all of the other cohorts that are being taught within the school, whether it be sport and exercise, science or the Public Health course that’s taught at Falmer.
Best of luck with the course. Let’s talk about your research and you’re doing a PhD at the moment. What’s that in?
Yeah, I’m looking at food policy elements relating to English food markets and I’m looking at the policy mechanisms and the tensions that exist between food market customers, market traders and the people that actually run and manage markets and have done a series of nested case studies I’m in the process of writing it up. It’s been really interesting to see how it is that the non-mainstream supermarket supply chains actually work and some of the positives and negatives associated with market shopping and informal retailing.
These street markets, has that been something that you have had a particular interest in for a while?
I’ve been looking at them on and off maybe the past five or six years, but I think there’s always been a lot that’s been written about the supermarkets. And if you look in other parts of the world, unstructured retailing markets can sometimes be the actual dominant means of food acquisition and food supply. So really, I’m just saying, well, okay, it still exists in England and in the U.K. It’s very often labelled as either traditional or a hidden sector and exploring that’s been really, really interesting. And I think if we’re looking at possible shifts in the way that we think about food, eating it is one thing, preparing it is another, but also buying it and understanding the supply chain is another as well.
There’s often something quite sort of rewarding by buying something local or, you know, getting more of the story about where it’s come from, isn’t there? People get quite a kick out of that once they’ve done it.
Yes, provenance is always important and it’s always something that people talk about when you ask them what is it that you actually buy at markets? I think an understanding of where it comes from is important and very often for a lot of people, it’s about the relationship with the producer. But I think it’s important also to differentiate that sometimes some of the products that are sold in food markets because they are expensive. But also when you look at some of the inner-city markets and you go, and you can do weekly shops, they’re cheaper than you can do at the supermarket. So there’s benefits at both ends of the spectrum, really.
Do you think they’re making it maybe a little bit easier for some of these newer food suppliers for people that want to do the new pop-ups as well? Do you think it’s easier for them to establish themselves, to get themselves out there now because there is more of a market for them again?
I think it is and I think one of one of the drivers for that’s actually been the emergence of the food discounters. Because if you look historically, a vast majority of UK consumers always shopped at the big four supermarkets. And the discounters have come into the market doing really, really well. You know, some of their stores are trading 40, 50 percent up year on year, which is unheard of. And I think it’s encouraging that if people can shift their weekly shop from the big supermarkets to the discounters where they’ve got more limited ranges and obviously the prices are a lot cheaper, then when you think about other formats of retailing, whether it’s the pop ups that you mentioned or whether it’s the markets that you mentioned, people will be more open to actually shopping those kind of formats as well. So I think, you know, there are lots of positives that are out there at the moment. I think it’ll probably take a while for people to maybe make a conscientious choice and consistently shop at markets or at pop ups. But I think the levels of awareness are actually increasing.
And if you were setting up, from the business side, it’s still going to be a bit of a risk to do this. But does it feel like it’s more worth the gamble at the moment?
I think there’s always an element of risk that sits there anyway. But the thing with with markets is that there are very low barriers to entry. Anybody that’s got an idea or product, as long as they’re registered with the local authority in an appropriate way, can can sell food. So there’s no barriers to entry. The start-up costs are actually low. So if, for example, you’ve just started, I don’t know, an independent bakery and you’ve got a limited product range and a limited production run, it’s an ideal thing without the costs of a bricks and mortar store to see what the response is to your product.
We end every podcast with some questions away from work. What advice would you give to your younger self?
There’s three things I would say if you’re not learning anything new or being developed, don’t be afraid to move on and move on. Try to be a little less risk averse and value your time more. Don’t waste a second.
Good advice. And can you pick a favourite place in Sussex?
Yeah, I’m very fortunate. I’ve got an allotment that overlooks the English Channel on the West Hill in Hastings. So you’ve got the sight, sound, smell of the sea and can watch the seasons pass by. I mean, it’s pretty much a perfect place even if I’m not growing that much in terms of crops.
What are you currently reading, watching and or listening to?
Ok, I’m reading a book by Polly Toynbee called Hard Work: Life in Low Pay Britain, and it just kind of reminds me of how fortunate I am. It was written in 2003, but it’s also quite a stark reminder of the fact, if you look at what’s happening today, of how little we’ve done to alleviate poverty in the UK. So it kind of sits there as a reminder. Other ones, there’s a book which is for my PhD, Street Vending in the Neoliberal City by Christina Graff and Noah Ha, and it just looks at case studies of different markets around the world. The final one is a great food tourism book by Sally Everitt. That book is just great. Everything comes through. Her passion for the subject comes through in every word.
Describe your perfect weekend.
Three things: going down to the local microbrewery on a Friday night, having a pizza. As long as I don’t overdo it. That’s fine. Gardening and pottering all day on a Saturday, whether it’s at home on the allotment. And then Sunday, either a long bike ride on a decent road with no potholes, no punctures, or just windsurfing anywhere where there’s a decent wind then collapse into reading the papers.
Lovely. And finally, if you can invite three people to dinner, past or present, who would they be and why?
Number one, Steve Bell, his cartoons never fail to make me actually smile and just provoke thoughts on the issues of the day. I’m sure the conversation would be great just to have insights into his perspectives on current affairs. Jay Rayner, just because in terms of his reviews, he’s brutally honest in everything that he writes and inevitably the discussion would lead to food. I think you’d probably be guaranteed a good meal. And then David Bowie because of his massive influence on my generation, really.