SCHOOL canteens should support Britain's beleaguered farmers by serving up British beef and other produce, according to council leaders.
The Local Government Association is urging its members to reverse a trend toward buying imported food, and wants them to look to local farmers to supply school meals services.
Since the BSE crisis, many local authorities have been buying foreign beef and other cheap imports have also proven popular. With total council spending on food believed to be about pound;100 million a year, a return to buying British would be a significant boost to farmers.
Alison Clish-Green, chair of the LGA's Rural Commission, said: "As this is a very difficult time for our farmers and the whole of British agriculture, we must all pull together to help this troubled but vital industry.
"That is why I am calling on all 450 councils throughout England and Wales to look at ways of using more British produce and show they are proud to serve British."
The call follows a Government pledge at the end of last year of pound;100m to help farmers survive Britain's worst agriculture crisis since the 1930s. Pig farmers estimate that they lose more than pound;20 per pig sold. Pork prices have collapsed by nearly 60 per cent since 1996, and the prices of beef, lamb and eggs have fallen by a third. lowland lamb producers are losing up to pound;15 per animal.
National Farmers' Union president Ben Gill welcomed the LGA's support, which he said was a significant boost to the NFU's "Proud to Serve British" campaign.
"Local authorities are responsible for the buying decisions of millions of people in Britain. We hope they all respond to the LGA's call," he said.
Seventy-one councils, mostly in urban areas, are still operating some form of restriction on beef in their school canteens compared with 115 in May 1997.
Terry Thomas, contracts officer with Dorset County Council, said he supported the idea of buying food locally. The law as it stands forbids councils from stipulating where contractors should get their supplies. "What we can do is talk to the contractor and that means that most of our stuff does actually come from British suppliers," he said.
Dorset got most of its beef from the UK and Ireland, its pork was all British, but lamb came from New Zealand.
Neil Dhot, spokesman for the LGA, said the new Local Government Bill, which received its second reading in the Commons last week, would give more freedom to councils to ask contractors to buy locally.
"We don't want people to be breaking the law. What we are saying at the moment is that if there is a low tender that is British supplied, then go for it," he said.