A clear class divide is emerging in the school meals market, with caterers losing more money in working-class than middle-class areas, a Caterer investigation has revealed.
Industry experts claim that a combination of poor food awareness among parents and the wider ethnic diversity in more deprived communities has exacerbated the general UK-wide slump in uptake.
According to Eden Foodservice managing director Simon James, uptake in inner-city schools has fallen by up to 6% compared with largely flat figures in "the leafy suburbs".
"Kids from poorer backgrounds are more likely to eat fast food at home than those in more affluent areas, who are turned on to healthier food and less likely to reject the new menus," he said.
School food consultant Gary Stewart agreed, and estimated the same disparity in uptake between schools from different socioeconomic areas. "What's worrying is that kids in inner-city schools who are entitled to free school meals are not even taking them," he said.
Stewart, whose clients include 10 inner-city Birmingham schools, said a high-fat diet at home was only part of the problem. "A lot of Muslim, Sikh and Afro-Caribbean children are more wary of unfamiliar new menus than the junk food of before," he said.
"Pasta, oily fish and paella don't form part of their diet at home."
Stewart was critical of the School Food Trust's blanket approach to giving schools menu advice. "It suggests red meat three times a week," he said. "In some Birmingham schools, because of the religious requirements, that means you'd only ever be able to give them halal lamb."
Will locked gates help meals uptake?
School food consultant Julian Edwards said sales figures were up to twice as bad in deprived areas that didn't have a locked-gate policy.
According to Edwards, an increasing number of caterers are calling for schools to lock their gates at lunchtime. "I know of one contract out to tender at the moment and the seven bidding contractors have all asked the school to keep the children on site," he said.
The School Food Trust estimates that £500m is spent by children outside school every year and Edwards has called for greater use of cashless systems in schools to help boost uptake.
By Tom Bill
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