School meals take-up in England has risen for a fourth consecutive year, the Children's Food Trust has announced today.
New figures reported by local authorities reveal that an average of 46.3% of England's primary school children opted for school meals in the 2011-12 academic year, up from 44.1% the previous year.
Take-up in secondary schools has also increased for the same period, rising to 39.8% from 37.6% the year before.
The survey also found that the average price of a school meal had gone up by 5p to £1.98, below food inflation rates.
However, the number of authorities taking part in the survey fell. Data coverage was 93.4% for primary and 64.1% for secondary in 2011-2012, compared with 95.6% and 73.7% respectively for 2010-2011.
Local authorities that didn't respond to the survey reported that this was predominantly down to reduced resource or a lack of capacity to collect data from schools.
Children's Food Trust chairman Rob Rees said school canteens had the potential to be such powerhouses for children's health and their performance at school - as long as schools, cooks and caterers got the support they needed to keep this progress going.
"If a child eats in their school dining room every day, that's hundreds of chances to help that child eat well - on top of the fact that simply by having a better meal inside them at lunchtime children learn better in their afternoon lessons," he said.
"With more of them eating school meals, it's more important than ever to make sure the food they get tastes good, gives them the nutrition they need and that they have an experience which makes them want to go back for more."
Commenting on the school food review by Leon co-founders Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, announced by Education Secretary Michael Gove earlier this month, Rees said it was an opportunity to make sure the right policies and support for schools and caterers were in place, to help them keep these numbers going up.
"Good data about how schools are doing on take-up and other issues will be crucial for getting those policies right," he added.
The Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA) also said it is encouraged by the survey results, but warned that without mandatory guidelines for all schools, there is a risk that standards could slip.
"Given the worrying rise in diet related diseases such as diabetes together with the long term impact of escalating obesity in this country, it is imperative that Academy schools are now brought into line with Maintained schools so that all schools are required to abide by the rules. An amendment to the Nutritional Standards legislation to ensure that this happens, would have a zero cost."
LACA went on to reiterate its concerns over the decision to launch another inquiry into school food.
"We cannot afford to allow standards to slip whilst we await the outcome of the Department for Education's latest assessment of food in schools, announced on 4 July and the publication of its action plan sometime during 2013. A lack of action now on this issue will increasingly allow poor nutritional habits to creep back in and for the good work to be undone in the intervening time," it said.
"These CFT Survey findings also indicate that attitudes to healthy eating are continuing to change. We always said that this would take at least ten years of collective effort by all those concerned with school food provision and the health and wellbeing of children.
"Through sheer hard work, perseverance and dedication of our front line catering teams in schools across the country, we are now winning over hearts, minds and stomachs of children as well as their parents. They need to be applauded for their unfailing commitment to the children and young people they serve."
The results will be presented at the Nutrition Society's summer conference at Queen's University in Belfast tomorrow (Wednesday).
By Janie Manzoori-Stamford
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