Hundreds of thousands of England's poorest children could miss out on free school meals because of plans to simply the welfare system, a charity has warned.
The meals are linked to low-income benefits that are among those merging into a single Universal Credit in 2013, which the Children's Society said risked creating a benefit "cliff edge".
An income cap currently being considered by ministers could leave 120,000 families worse off, according to a report by the charity, which estimated that it would cost £500m to extend free school meals to all families on Universal Credit.
The Children's Society's Fair and Square report estimates that 2.2 million English schoolchildren are living below the poverty line. More than half of these youngsters are not receiving free school meals while 700,000 are not entitled to the dinners, it revealed.
Elaine Hindal, the charity's campaign for childhood director, said the introduction of a new system of entitlement was a chance to increase the availability of free school meals.
"The government has a unique opportunity to extend free school meals to all low-income working families, so that no child living in poverty misses out.
"This would be in line with the government's aim to make work pay by paving the way for many families to return to employment and help lift them out of poverty."
But the Government said it is determined to ensure that needy children don't miss out.
Children's minister Sarah Teather said: "We remain totally committed to continuing to provide free school meals (FSM) to children from the poorest families.
"We are reforming welfare to get more people into jobs as that is the surest way of cutting poverty. The reforms mean we will have to think hard about the best way to decide who is eligible for FSM so they continue to be targeted at those who need them the most."
The Children's Society has launched a petition calling on the government to extend free school meals to all children living in poverty in England - including low-income working families - by October 2012.
By Janie Manzoori-Stamford
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