The Government has been urged to rethink the distribution of its £2b public catering budget.
Speakers at the Real Food Festival in London's Earls Court last week said far more needs to be done on sustainability and sourcing.
Rosie Boycott, chair of London Food, which was formed by the Mayor of London in 2004 to lead debate on food issues in the capital, said: "Better food and smaller producers should have a far greater presence. The Government has come up with plenty of initiatives, and it's up to public institutions to do something."
Kath Dalmeny, director of campaign group Sustain, told delegates: "We have to use the money in a way that doesn't put endangered fish species on public dishes, that rewards farmers who treat their land properly and that takes account of animal welfare.
"The public gets it, but the men in Whitehall departments don't. They just can't see the way opinion is changing," she added.
School meals campaigner Jackie Schneider said suppliers also had a duty to improve their food offering.
"The food companies can be a force for change," she said. "They have their tentacles in everything. Rather than advertising unhealthy food to children they have to change their act."
Boycott suggested that schools and hospitals escape scrutiny "because they're not as sexy as a new cheese or a farmers' market".
"The ramifications of feeding in them are arguably more widespread," she said. "We need them to change."
By James Aufenast
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