Over three million eating school dinners

More than three million children are now eating school dinners, as the numbers continue to soar, according to new figures.

An extra 167,000 pupils took up the meals in 2011/12, compared to the year before, data published by the Children’s Food Trust reveals. It is the fourth year running that the numbers of youngsters eating school lunches has risen.

In total, almost half of England’s primary school pupils on average (46.3 per cent) had school dinners this year, up 2.2 percentage points on 2010/11.

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In England’s secondary schools, nearly two-fifths (39.8 per cent) took up the meals on average, also up 2.2 percentage points on the year before. It means that overall, the equivalent to almost 3.3 million pupils were eating school dinners this year.

As the number of pupils eating school meals has gone up, the price of a dinner has also risen.

Youngsters are now paying an extra five pence on average for their lunch, according to yesterday’s figures. A meal now costs £1.98 on average, compared to £1.93 a year ago.

Yesterday’s figures are based on a survey of local authorities, conducted by the Children’s Food Trust. The poll shows that of the nearly 3.3 million youngsters eating school dinners, just over one million are on free school meals – a key measure of poverty.

It also reveals that since 2008/09, almost half a million more children have switched from bringing packed lunches to school to eating school dinners.

Trust chairman Rob Rees said: “Our school canteens have the potential to be such powerhouses for children’s health and their performance at school – as long as schools, cooks and caterers get the support they need to keep this progress going.”

The figures come just two weeks after Education Secretary Michael Gove announced a fresh review of school dinners, led by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, the men behind the Leon restaurant chain. The review has been set up amid concerns that many youngsters are still being served unhealthy meals, and that more needs to be done to boost food standards in all schools. But the plan has been criticised by TV chef Jamie Oliver, who said it is time for action and not more “costly reports”.