Thousands of Leeds’s poorest children have missed out on their free school dinners.
More than 3,500 children, who were eligible for the meals, did not take up their entitlement at the start of the year.
Education chiefs are now hoping the roll out of the Universal Free School Meals scheme will encourage more children to take them up.
Around 1,500 secondary school and 2,000 primary school pupils did not take up their entitlement to free school meals in January this year.
But despite the figures council chiefs claim there has been a year-on-year increase in uptake following the introduction of a toolkit for schools.
The news comes as the city’s school kitchens look set to make one million more school meals each year for children following the introduction of Universal Free School Meals.
And for some of Leeds’s poorest children this will be their only hot meal of the day as their families live on a financial knife-edge.
The scheme, which is believed to cost more than £3m, will see free school meals available to primary school children between reception and year two city-wide.
Councillor Judith Blake, executive member responsible for children’s services said: “Having a healthy nutritious meal everyday can make a significant contribution to a child’s overall health.
“This is especially key for children from low income families, which is why we have been working hard over the past few years to increase the number of pupils who take up their entitlement to a free school meal.
“The reasons why children and young people fail to take free school meals are complex and varied, and although stigma has been thought to be an element for some pupils and parents, it is not always the case.
“Every opportunity has been taken to improve the quality of the experience of having lunch at school, where possible we have responded to concerns raised by pupils in relation to the timing of meals and quality of the food.
“In recent years, we have had a year-on-year increase in uptake following the introduction of a toolkit for schools, which we developed to help minimise any stigma associated with taking a free school meal, maximise awareness of entitlement and to make it easier to claim.”
EDUCATION CHIEFS GO BACK TO SCHOOL TO TASTE MEALS
Education chiefs went back to the classroom to get a taste of school dinners in Leeds.
They visited St Nicholas Primary School, in Gipton, as children tucked into fruit, vegetables and pasta for their lunch.
It is just one of the city’s primary schools serving up free school meals to children who are reception age up to year two.
Around 80 new staff have been employed across the 190 primary schools in Leeds and catering bosses have installed 415 new pieces of heavy equipment into school kitchens.
Councillor Peter Gruen, executive member for neighbourhoods, planning and personnel, said: “The team at Catering Leeds have really risen to the challenge, making sure all the schools they cater for are ready for all the extra school dinners needed from September.
“The timescale and budget were very tight, but the team have worked closely with all the schools, to assess their needs, and have come up with some innovative solutions to make sure all children who take up their entitlement to a free school meal, are able to get one.
“These are difficult times. There is poverty and hardship for some families and their children get their main meal of the day at schools across Leeds at dinner time.”
Councillor Judith Blake, executive member for children and families, also sampled the food at the school.
She said: “If a child is hungry they are not going to concentrate of perform as well.
“We will be watching with great interest to see what impact this new scheme has on children.”
Councillor Keith Wakefield, leader of Leeds City Council, added: “We all know in parts of the city not everyone has access to good nutritional food particularly in the mornings and at lunch times.
“This is a vital part in supporting children.”