East of England: Local food for local people

A groundbreaking policy of ‘local food for local people’ is paying off for the East Of England Co-operative.

A groundbreaking policy of ‘local food for local people’ is paying off for the East of England Co-operative.

The society’s Sourced Locally initiative has grown from modest beginnings a few years ago, with a small range of products to well over 2,000 different lines — from beer, bread and bacon to honey, haddock and heat logs

The pioneering project is a major success for the society, which is one of the largest businesses in the region with over 200 stores, 5,000 employees and a turnover of £350 million a year in a region covering Norfolk, Suffolk, and North East Essex

Local Sourcing Manager Kevin Warden currently
works with Sourcing Specialist Jason Whittleton travelling the region, visiting farmers’ markets and seeking out the best suppliers.

The story begins back in June 2007 when senior retail executive Roger Grosvenor was travelling to a retail outlet in Aldeburgh when he passed a field packed with fresh asparagus. When he found out the store’s variety came from Peru he decided it was time to look for produce a little closer to home.

After a trial run in several stores, the initiative began in earnest in January 2008 — when Kevin Warden was appointed to his current position.

He said: “Sourced Locally began as a three-month trial from July 2007. We contacted a wholesaler in Ipswich called Taste of Anglia and agreed a range of 40 products in nine or ten shops. Within weeks our shop managers were coming back saying can you get us any more.

“My remit was to go out and source local produce within a 30-mile radius of the society’s Ipswich HQ and from the beginning we went from strength to strength.

“In the first year our turnover on locally sourced produce was £1m and it has now expanded to £11.1m year turnover with 134 suppliers.”

Sourced Locally is also good news for the local economy which has benefitted in the past six years to the tune of £20m. A recent survey carried out by the East Of England Co-operative also shows the initiative has created over 100 jobs for suppliers and secured jobs for existing businesses which might otherwise have gone under.  Its success in boosting the local economy was recognised recently when the society won a national Business In The Community award.

Networking is also key to local sourcing and there is now an annual dinner at the society’s head office, as well as the chance for suppliers to be recognised as Producer of the Year. The ever-growing list of locally sourced goods ranges from cottage industries supplying cook-in sauces  to individual stores to prestige names like Adnams beer and Jarretts Tea .

Farmers from across the East of England supply meat, eggs and vegetables and every single store has a different range to offer. One of the latest innovations is premium ready meals made by Keejays, a family firm from Hadleigh in Suffolk. Dishes on the menu currently include chicken chow mein, Italian-style meatballs and chicken tikka masala. Lodge Farm in Hadleigh sells locally sourced Christmas trees along with strawberries, runner beans and pumpkins. Most foods are supplied directly from producers to stores apart from the larger product lines which are stocked in the Society’s Distribution Centre in Ipswich.

Like all Co-operative retailers, the East of England Society sources the vast majority of its food from the Co-operative Retail Trading Group, which still supplies around 97 per cent of its range.

However in the coming period, it is aiming to increase the ratio of locally-sourced goods to around five per cent of those on sale. Kevin Warden said: “Local produce like potatoes is sold alongside CRTG goods and they are aware of what we are doing and are very supportive.

“I would think if any co-operative retailers were to try and increase their local sourcing it could be done, but here we have an agricultural area so it is maybe a little easier because we have the resources on our doorstep. 

“It’s great to have the support of all the board and directors and we have all put so much energy into it. We go out to talk to local schools and community groups.

“Our goal is to not only get more local producers in more stores,  but try to get the right products in the right stores and give them the right kind of space. We’ve had some minor issues with suppliers over issues like distribution, bar codes and labelling but on the whole it’s been fine as we are there to advise and help local producers. If our suppliers have a problem or a great idea they talk directly to the people responsible. We are like a little family.

“I always say it’s a two-way street which means our customer is happy and suppliers reach a much bigger market than they would have had otherwise.”

Adds Kevin: “It’s about supporting local producers and offering quality produce as well as cutting food miles and meeting the demands of our customers.

“Some of the products are a little bit more expensive but we find people are prepared to pay a bit more for a quality product and you never know what you are going to find around the corner.”

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