SCHOOLS in York and North Yorkshire want to buy regional produce from local supplies for better school meals, but EU red tape is stopping them, claims a countryside pressure group.

Locally, authorities say cost is also a factor. The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) believes European competition law is preventing education authorities from purchasing locally.

British producers want a bigger slice of the £1.8 billion spent each year on food by the public sector, but regulations prevent discrimination against suppliers because of location. A review has been announced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to examine whether small producers are being given opportunity to compete for public sector contracts.

CLA Yorkshire director Dorothy Fairburn said: "We have been campaigning for more than a year on the benefits to the local economy and British farming of sourcing food locally wherever possible."

She added: "Schoolchildren in particular should have access to the better quality and healthier food that Yorkshire's farmers have to produce to the highest standards. The region's suppliers, large and small, are ready to supply it. But it seems that the focus has been on obtaining the lowest possible price."

Geoff Sykes, of the Farmer's Cart, Towthorpe, overall winner of the Evening Press Eat Local competition, said encouraging school caterers to use local producers was a "marvellous idea".

He said: "Why should we cart produce all around the country when we have wonderful food right here on our doorstep?"

A spokeswoman for City of York Council said the majority of its schools were contracted to North Yorkshire County Caterers of Thirsk, who used local producers for a wide range of products.

She said: "We have to walk the fine line of supplying a service that the customers want at a price they are willing to pay and cover the costs of the service. But this does not prevent our contractor from using local produce."

A spokesman for North Yorkshire County Council said it was keen to discuss ways of increasing the use of local suppliers for next year's contract.

He said: "Price still remains an important factor. If we were able to increase the number of local suppliers used in school catering, then we would be achieving a number of our stated corporate priorities."

Updated: 10:56 Thursday, September 25, 2003