Lower take-up for free school meals

BARELY half of the budget allocated to providing free school meals to disadvantaged youngsters is being claimed, The Evening Star can reveal today.

BARELY half of the budget allocated to providing free school meals to disadvantaged youngsters is being claimed, The Evening Star can reveal today.

Figures reveal that the county's 2,975 disadvantaged 11-16-year-old students eligible to receive school meals are spending only 54 per cent of the cash provided for the initiative.

The staggering shortfall today prompted concern that stigma and embarrassment could be to blame for discouraging children from claiming free meals.

The issue is compounded by the fear that pupils who do not enjoy a school lunch are more likely to gauge on unhealthy snacks instead, thus worsening the epidemic of childhood obesity.

Patricia O'Brien, Suffolk County Council's portfolio holder for children, schools and young people's services, said efforts were being made to encourage children to eat school lunches.

However, she added: “You can only do so much.

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“Suffolk Catering does a very good job - I have sampled school meals myself and they are very tasty. But some children are fussy - that's just part of growing up.”

Terry Duffell, headteacher at Holywells High in Ipswich, admitted a number of pupils were missing out free lunches at the Lindbergh Road school.

“Around one in four of our students claim free school meals but that is significantly under what it should be,” he said.

“There is a stigma in some cases. Our families may not be wealthy but they are very proud and they might be deterred from applying because they may feel they have failed to provide, which is certainly not the way we see it.”

While secondary school students appear loathe to tuck into free meals, the picture in primary schools is very different with 94pc of youngsters taking advantage.

Ipswich's Morland Primary School has developed a series of bold initiatives to encourage young people to eat school lunches, including those who are eligible for free meals.

Headteacher Ken Marrable said: “We are changing the whole culture of eating in the school.

“We want children to see lunch as a social occasion. Eating properly is an important life skill.”

Children qualify for free meals if one or both of their parents receives income support, Job Seekers' Allowance or child tax credit.

Should schools do more to encourage children to eat school meals - or is it a parental responsibility? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or e-mail eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk

The figures - percentage take up of county's free school meal budget:

Primary schools - 94pc

Secondary schools - 54pc

Average amount of money taken per day from the sale of school meals in Suffolk:

2007/08 2008/09 (so far)

Primary schools: �14,801 �15,229

Secondary schools: �16,346 �15,830

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