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The Co-operative Group is to feed more young minds with an expansion of its academies program, which places community and fairness at the heart of the curriculum.

Best known for feeding the country through its network of supermarkets, the group is doubling down on its schools operation as a means to win over more young people to its way of doing business.

Education has long been a guiding principle for the group, but it was only in 2009 that it first began operating its own schools network, steadily increasing its presence to the point where it now operates 28 academies across West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester, Staffordshire and Merseyside.

That process was turbocharged by a £3.6m investment in education three years ago to improve the lives and opportunities of more young people, with an ambition to expand its school estate to 40 by the end of the year.

The long-term project foregoes the stunts and gimmicks of rival supermarket operators by catching the next generation of consumers while they are still young, instilling them with the importance of grassroots action.

The brainchild of chief executive Steve Murrells, the expansion dovetails with newfound confidence at the group, which has already opened its first sixth-form college for pupils over the age of 16 as well as its first stores on university campuses.

Speaking to The Times, Murrells said: “The academy’s the icing on the cake because we can see them at a young age. We can influence and get into their kind of DNA early so that hopefully they’ll stay with us and see us all the way through.

“I think it’s well accepted that talent is everywhere but opportunity isn’t. This is one of the ways the Co-op can step in and play its part through a brighter future for young people of all colors, all creeds, all religions. As a future employer for our pupils, we are the largest legal services provider, funeral provider, we have a big insurance business and shops that source around the world.”

The Co-op has answered a call from footballer Marcus Rashford to deliver more than 6m meals of surplus food, and has reconditioned 1,000 used laptops and other devices for use in its schools for pupils who lack equipment.