School meal take-up has increased for a third year in a row, according to new figures published today.
The Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA) and the School Food Trust (SFT) found the biggest increase in numbers in primary schools, with 44.1% of children opting for the school canteen over packed lunches - up from 41.4% last year.
Secondary schools also saw numbers rise. The 2010-11 year saw take-up of 37.6% against a figure of 35.8% for the previous year.
Rob Rees, chairman of the SFT, said that there was no better review for any restaurant than to see the number of returning customers going up each year. "And that's exactly what's happening here, thanks to the hard work of cooks and catering teams, lunchtime supervisors, schools and councils," he added.
But Rees also warned that in order to see the numbers continue to rise, school meals need to remain affordable.
He said: "At a time when funding is so tight everywhere, good school food is a solid investment in children's learning and health.
"That's why we're setting out six staples of good food at school that will keep these figures rising: giving children enough time for lunch; decent dining rooms; freshly cooked food; affordable prices; stay-on-site policies; and cooking in the curriculum."
The research also found that despite the loss of the ring-fence around Government funding for school food, many schools are pledging to continue investment in their lunchtime services.
Two-thirds of councils that took part in the survey (65%) indicated that their catering services would continue to receive School Lunch Grant funding, with fewer than one in five indicating otherwise.
The average meal price across all schools was £1.93, a rise of 5p - less than 3% and below the current rate of food inflation - on the previous year.
Sandra Russell, LACA chair, said: "We are pleased to see an increase in both primary and secondary school meal numbers, particularly at a time when parents are having to watch every penny.
"While the results of the survey indicate a positive trend, we must continue to encourage children and young people to make wise food choices.
"Going forward, it is absolutely critical that at this time of public sector austerity measures, we do all we can to ensure the now un-ring-fenced School Lunch Grant continues to be channelled towards catering and that school meals remain high quality, nutritious and above all, as affordable as possible for parents".
Key findings of the survey
â- More than three million children now eat a school meal every day
â- The equivalent of almost 590 million healthy school lunches were served up last year
â- The number of children taking both paid-for and free school meals in the 2010-11 year increased
â- Figures in primary schools have now notched up a rise of almost 5 percentage points over just three years, compensating for the fall in take up seen after Jamie Oliver's original campaign.
By Janie Stamford
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