The government's plan to provide every child in infant schools across England with a free lunch meal has been welcomed by caterers and school food campaigners.
The news comes after Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced the scheme at this year's Liberal Democrat Party Conference, saying that all state-educated children aged five, six or seven will have free school meals regardless of their parents' income. It is said that this will raise the number of eligible pupils from the current 400,000 to 1.5m nationwide.
Specialising in school catering, Taylor Shaw was involved in a Government-backed pilot scheme in 2009 to 2011, which saw all primary school pupils across Durham provided with a free lunch, giving the company insight into the effects of the plans.
Managing director, Jim Lovett, highlighted how important quality food is in improving children's health and educational achievement. He said: "This is great news for families and for schools. Our experience showed that giving a child a nutritious meal made with quality fresh ingredients once a day significantly improved children's behaviour, and so their ability to learn.
"Most of all, providing meals for free raised uptake to more than 90% and it was clear that for some children in deprived areas, this was the only quality hot meal that children were getting."
He highlighted evidence that shows that younger children especially benefit from nutritious, hot meals at lunchtime, and suggested that improving children's diets at a young age could have positive health and economic effects later on.
"By intervening early in their educational career, this plan could boost attainment and help tackle childhood obesity, saving the country billions in the long run," he added.
Linda Cregan, chief executive of the Children's Trust, also welcomed the moved but warned of the importance of supporting schools and staff to deliver the plans.
"Free school meals for all children from when they start school through to Year 2 will be a hugely welcome step towards making sure that more children who most need them, get them," she said.
"Those benefits are particularly important for children living in poverty: we know many of these children aren't reaching their full potential at school, and their lunch can be their only proper meal of the day - with school meals still outpacing the vast majority of packed lunches when it comes to nutrition.
"However, we mustn't forget that schools and their staff will need good support to deliver this well: to make sure they have the skills and the facilities they need to serve excellent food and an excellent experience to more children. To reap the full benefits of universal free school meals, the experience for children must be a good one."