Low-income families are struggling pay for healthy school meals for their children while a third of schools are still failing to comply with nutritional guidelines, according to a report by schools watchdog Oftsed.
The findings provide more ammunition for critics of the coalition Government's decision to quash plans to extend free school meal provision to all primary pupils living below the poverty line, not just those whose parents are unemployed.
Ofsted inspectors found that in some cash-strapped families, siblings were forced to take it in turns to have nutritious lunches for a week.
"Strategies to encourage take-up of school lunches by pupils from families where the family income was low were limited," the report said.
"Parents from these families told inspectors that they often could not afford to pay for a school lunch, especially if they had more than one child. One family, for example, had to arrange for the two children to take turns and eat a school meal on alternate weeks."
The report found that other parents complained about the lack of advice on how to produce balanced but inexpensive packed lunches, while little account was taken of the fact that many families whose income was low did not have transport and therefore had to rely on the small range of cheap food available locally.
"Local shopkeepers were unlikely to stock appropriate food unless they could be convinced of the financial viability of doing so. Unhealthy packed lunches did not necessarily reflect parents' lack of commitment or cooperation but, rather, a complex set of local circumstances."
Of the 39 schools visited, 15 primary schools, eight secondary and the pup referral unit were fully compliant or close to complying with the food- and nutrient-based standards for school lunches. However, only one school visited by Ofsted inspectors had any form of collaboration with local businesses, and that was limited to arranging for the local chip shop owner to check that pupils had been given permission to buy food from her at lunchtimes.
This week an alliance of health professionals called on education secretary Michael Gove to reverse the decision to axe the scheme, while the Child Poverty Action Group described the decision as the same as an income-tax hike of £600 a year for a working poor family with two children.
Campaigners said the shelved scheme, which was devised under the Labour government, would have cut education and health inequalities and lifted 50,000 young people out of poverty by giving them more nutritious lunches.
Caterer, in collaboration with the Local Authority Caterers Association](http://www.laca.co.uk/), launched its School Meals Matter campaign calling on the government to commit to support the school meals service and continue investment in order to drive take-up and make school meals more affordable.
By Janie Stamford
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