The Local Government Association (LGA) said a survey of council chief finance officers shows there is a funding gap of £25m which town halls have had to fill.
The survey had responses from just over half the 150 councils so the actually shortfall is likely to be far higher. On average each council is having to find £488,000 each to ensure all pupils will get the meals they will be entitled to.
Councils were given Government funding of £150m to allow school kitchens to be built and refurbished to be able to deliver free school meals to all children up to the age of seven.
The LGA is calling for more Government funding to “make the policy work now and in the future.” Of the authorities surveyed 47 per cent said they had not had enough money to cover the cost of work needed. Of those half said the council would contribute to the shortfall and just over a third said that money would need to be diverted from school funds.
Coun David Simmonds, the chairman of the LGA’s children and young people board said: “When the youngest pupils go back to school next month, their mums and dads will expect them to receive a free and nutritious meal. Some councils already provided this service, and now that it has become government policy we are determined to ensure every child is provided for.
“There’s no doubt that dishing up a nutritious lunch for every young pupil will improve the experience of school and help them concentrate in lessons.
“Councils and schools have been working really hard to make this happen within this ambitious timescale. But it cannot be right that for some councils, money set aside for maintenance has instead had to be spent plugging the shortfall in money which government should have provided for meals.
“This research makes it clear central government has not provided schools with enough money to do the essential work necessary to give 1.5 million children a free meal at lunchtime. It is councils and schools who are picking up the bill for this work, at a time when budgets are already squeezed and tough decisions are being taken.”
Tristram Hunt MP, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, said: “Hard-pressed schools and councils are being forced to bail out David Cameron’s Government because of its own incompetence. Nick Clegg announced the policy without doing the maths first.”
The funding shortfall identified by the LGA today is £25,866,143.
Earlier this year The Yorkshire Post reported that the cost of building and refurbishing new school kitchens in the region in order to make the policy work was at least £10m, with five authorities saying they had not been given enough money from the Government.
The Government has said that the policy will save parents of children up to the age of seven more than £60m in Yorkshire in its first year.