Natural Foods Merchandiser

Q&A with Helge Hellberg

Q: How did you get into radio?

A: After 10 years of touring with my band, I came to the Bay Area to find healthier relationships—to my work, my food and myself. I fell on my degree in marketing and got a job with Wild Oats. Soon after that, I became the marketing and communications director for California Certified Organic Farmers, the largest organic certifier on the West Coast, at the time when the National Organic Program was released. During that time, I realized that the farmer of tomorrow has to be a nutritionist to some degree. The knowledge of how to grow things in this emerging local and organic market would not be enough to tell the whole story of your product. People are mostly interested in personal health, so I studied holistic nutrition to fill the gap between the farm gate and the consumer. The technical knowledge, the understanding of the movement with a European perspective, plus the ability to tie it all together as a holistic nutritionist created an interesting mix that people were interested in listening to. It’s evolving from the role of the student—and I still learn every day in my work—to sharing what I see with other people. Radio is a great medium to tell stories, and I also enjoy giving talks and working with video
and TV.

Q: You say at the beginning of An Organic Conversation that it’s a show about “food, relationships and life itself.” That’s a lot. Why not focus on just one?

A: Here’s what’s happening: If I really listen and pay attention, I cannot talk about healthy foods and local agriculture and organic production without acknowledging that they touch every aspect of life. At one point, we were all vegetables. We know that 80 percent of the calcium in the spine of a grizzly bear is of oceanic origin. As philosophical as it sounds, the salmon has become the bear. We know that what we put in our bodies literally becomes us, and one day we’ll go back to the soil. We will decompose and recompose into something else. Really, the emphasis of my show is to create a reverence for life—a reverence for life that will inform all of our actions. You can trace most, if not all, challenges that we face as a society back to our relationship to soil. Global warming, public ill health, social injustice—it all is connected in one way or another to the way we relate to the land and the way we grow our food and feed ourselves.

Q: So how can we create a reverence for life?

A: For me it starts with the awareness of death. As we know in agriculture, death births life. An awareness of death will birth a reverence for life. We need to hold in our awareness that this life will end one day, that we are on borrowed time, and that we will all go back into the soil and become something else. So that’s the context, the container in which I place the show every week. People appreciate that philosophy because it’s true. Becoming present to the preciousness of our lives changes the value of every single day and every single relationship.

That’s what I’m trying to communicate between the lines and through the stories of local food production: the miracle of life, and to be alive, in this time, in this body. The stories are endless and so is the space between the lines. The next 10 years, in terms of retail and consumer awareness, will be about the whole story; people will ask, “How will this affect my life?” because the story of our food defines the story of our own life.

Q: What can a retail store do better to promote or enhance health in the next 10 years?

A: It’s all about how educated and integrated a staff is to tell the whole story, to know the integrity of a product. With that knowledge, we can make each purchase an individual experience with that customer. The customer trusts to a wide degree, if not entirely, that what is offered by the retail store is checked up on, verified and OK’d—until we learn that the product is not that great for certain reasons, and then the trust is lost and difficult to reinstate.
We have to win the trust of the consumers through leadership, which can mean taking a well-selling product off the shelf—before the customer demands it—when we find out it’s not good for us. We have to vouch for every single product in the store, and we have to know the shopper so well that the individual sale is a personal engagement with the store clerk.

Q: How can natural grocery stores improve education?

A: Ten years ago, a natural food store was the main source of information for healthy living—nowadays education happens mainly off-site. It’s amazing how much time and effort goes into signage and education and shelf talkers, which is a blend of education and advertisement. I would bet that the vast majority of customers are overwhelmed with all the stuff to read and to learn. Don’t get me wrong—education is important, but it needs to be balanced with highly effective and trained staff, which presents an opportunity for retailers. You can create an environment where the education has a place. Education is most effective when it fully includes the one being educated. What if retail staff welcomed every customer with a sincere cross-departmental invitation, as in, “Welcome to my aisle. How are you today? A little under the weather? How about this tonic, this bath product, and by the way, the chicken soup today is exceptional!”

Q: How do you use your radio show to educate?

A: Well, my radio show, An Organic Conversation, is, in its focus, not an educational show. I am not trying to convince people of anything. Who am I to tell people what they should or shouldn’t do? What I can do, though, is create the space every week for beauty to emerge. I’m simply telling the whole story and connecting the dots—and then trust that listeners will make their own informed choices. I know it works, because some of my underwriters have doubled their online sales as a result of being part of the show. People want a complete picture, and we give them the space to remember their own inner voice as the guiding principle in all their decisions.

Listen to An Organic Conversation every Saturday, 10 – 11 a.m. PST, on Green 960 (, or as a podcast at

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