Following a successful trial in Yorkshire, the Co-op is to roll out a nationwide scheme to stock local products in its stores.
The Yorkshire trial involved more than 50 local manufacturers who provided Co-op food stores with locally produced goods such as eggs, baked goods, ice cream, sweets, chutneys, pies, sausages and beer.
The Co-op said the trial was a huge success and the scheme now offers more than 150 local lines across Yorkshire. The Co-op is also working with more than 30 Yorkshire farmers who produce pork, beef, eggs and dairy in the county.
The firm said its members are keen to encourage innovation with local products and following the trial in Yorkshire, the programme is now being rolled out to every county in the UK.
The news came as the group announced a return to profit after it made a clean break from its troubled banking business. The mutual posted a pre-tax profit of £72m in 2017, compared with a £132m loss the year before when it wrote off the value of its stake in the Co-operative Bank.
The Co-op said local sourcing of produce is a cornerstone of its food strategy and it is committed to “celebrating, supporting and championing locally loved produce”.
Over 20 Yorkshire breweries now supply the Co-op and it is estimated that Yorkshire breweries will tap into annual sales of more than 500,000 pints this year.
Simon Dryell, head of local dourcing for the Co-op, said: “Local produce is made with a mix of pride, innovation, history and passion to deliver consistently great quality and taste.
"The Co-op is committed to celebrating and supporting local producers. It is an area where we see continued sustainable growth as consumers increasingly seek provenance and trust locally."
He said the group recognises that one size doesn’t fit all for its smaller producers, so its approach is designed to break down the barriers that these producers can often face.
"We want these businesses to thrive in our communities and so we don’t seek exclusivity for instance – our ambition is for our stores to be at the heart of local life, connecting communities together and offering great quality products when and where our members and customers need them," he added.
One of the most popular Yorkshire suppliers is Todmorden-based Porcus, which supplies the Co-op with homemade pork products and sausages.
Porcus director Sarah Jane Clegg said: “When our area was hit by severe flooding in December 2015 we were really up against it.
"We spoke to the Co-op and explained the dire circumstances we were in. They listened, and in order to help, they rolled out our products into a number of their other stores in the area, which was fantastic.
"It felt easy to approach them - it felt natural. This relationship is continuing to blossom and we’ve already increased the range we supply which is great.”
Unlike some of its competitors, the Co-op said it will not demand exclusivity as it wants to see local businesses grow and thrive in their communities, create jobs and benefit the local economy.
In a separate statement, the Co-op announced a multi-million pound plan to accelerate the roll out of its academy schools programme, with plans to more than treble the number of academies it sponsors to 40 in the next three years.
The Co-op, which sponsors seven academies in West Yorkshire, is already the UK’s largest corporate sponsor of academies, having opened three in the last year to take its current total to 12.
The Co-op takes over predominantly weak schools in economically challenged communities in the North and Midlands, putting in place ambitious turnaround plans. The Co-op Academies Trust already sponsors two secondaries and five primary academies in Yorkshire.
A number of other schools in West Yorkshire have applied to the Co-op to become academies.
The Co-op said its academies have enjoyed huge success, with a strategy designed to empower teachers and young people to work together for a better education and a better community, in line with the Co-op’s own values.
The 12 academies currently have almost 10,000 students and employ more than 1,000 teachers and support staff. Under the new plan, that is expected to grow to more than 40,000 students and 4,000 staff.
The Co-op is now putting a further £3.6m into the Co-op Academies Trust to kick-start the next growth phase. This reflects a significant pipeline of schools, including ones in West Yorkshire that wish to join the programme, which is backed by the Department for Education (DfE).
A recent report by Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield highlighted that children from poorer homes in northern England face an education gap that starts before school and widens over time. The Northern Powerhouse Partnership has also called on businesses in the North to do more to help close the skills gap with the South and the Co-op said it is keen to support that ambition.