The Liberal Democrats today claimed that more than 400,000 fewer meals a day are now being served in English schools than two years ago placing the system in "meltdown".
The party said that with 250,000 fewer secondary school meals and 178,000 fewer primary school meals being served each day compared with before the healthy eating regulations came in after Jamie Oliver's campaign, the service's future is bleak unless there is immediate intervention.
David Laws, Liberal Democrat spokesman for children, schools and families, said: "Instead of boosting the number of children taking up healthy school meals, government policy has contributed to an implosion of the service."
The figures, revealed in response to a parliamentary question and released to coincide with the new school year, show almost two thirds of secondary school children are shunning school meals and around 60% of primary age pupils have opted out.
As a result, the Lib Dems claim the Labour government is now nearly one million children below the 2009 uptake target it set itself early last year after it embarked on the path towards healthy eating with the award of £280m to improve school meals in March 2005.
Laws said: "Without action, this government could preside over the end of the school meals service as we know it."
The findings come after Ian El-Mokadem the boss of Compass, which owns the sector's largest private contractor Scolarest, told Caterer in July he feared school meals reform was likely to backfire as changes had been made too quickly.
Figures from the Local Authority Caterers Association the same month showed uptake of school meals at secondary schools in England was, at 35%, at its lowest ever level.
The School Food Trust today issued guidance on packed lunches www.schoolfoodtrust.org.uk/packedlunches] after research conducted in Sheffield showed that 65% of them contained an unhealthy snack item or piece of confection. Judy Hargadon, chief executive of the School Food Trust, said: "Today's information pack is meant to support parents and schools so that whatever their lunch choice, children are given a healthy meal during the school day."
By Chris Druce
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