The School Food Trust has urged education caterers to ensure school meals are affordable, following a report by Which? magazine that reveals price hikes of up to 25%.
The consumer watchdog survey found that children at around two-thirds of schools will be forced to pay more for their lunch in the coming term, raising concerns that efforts to improve children's access to healthier meals may be undermined.
Prices for a school lunch vary dramatically across the UK with Pool Council, now charging an average of £2.50, being the most expensive in the country.
Bolton Council, which has imposed the biggest increase at 25%, continues to have the lowest prices in the country at just £1.25. The average price rise is about 2.5%.
David Edwards, director of programmes and partnerships at the SFT, said: "Keeping prices affordable is crucial if we want more families to try school meals, which are typically healthier than the average packed lunch."
Take-up of school meals has steadily increased for the last three years, according to figures published in July by the SFT in collaboration with the Local Authorities Catering Association.
But even though 44% of school pupils in England now opt for a school meal, it falls short of the estimated 55% take-up necessary to keep costs down.
Edwards said: "Ultimately, increasing the number of children eating school meals will mean that schools can spread their costs, reducing the need for subsidy in the longer-term.
"That's why we're urging schools to continue investing in good food; helping them to make the lunch experience better so that pupils want to choose school meals, and supporting caterers to operate more efficiently."
By Janie Stamford
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