School meal uptake in England has not yet recovered to pre-Jamie Oliver levels, according to the Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA).
LACA vice-chairman Irene Carroll said: "The figures don't look good. If it continues and money gets really tight, staff will lose their jobs."
Carroll blamed Oliver's TV programme for the falls, which she believes gave all school meals a bad name. "He went at it like a bull in a China shop," she said. "He stirred things up but there are all these underlying problems that he doesn't have to worry about."
Local authorities contacted by Caterer said the number of school meals bought by pupils during September were down by between 3% and 10% compared with the same period last year.
Former LACA chairman Neil Porter said that meal numbers in the Bristol City Council area were down by between 8% and 10%, which he said was "fairly typical".
Roger Denton, manager of Sutton Catering Services in Surrey, said that despite improved menus and a marketing push, numbers were 3% down on last year. "After everything that's happened in the last year, we're happy not to be down by more," he added.
Similar drops were seen in Surrey, Knowsley in Merseyside and Southampton. The falls have forced caterers to question whether the School Meals Review Panel's target of a 10% rise in meal uptake by 2009 is feasible.
Porter said: "It will take a long time. Numbers have actually got to start moving in the right direction first."
By Tom Bill
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