The number of children eating school lunches in England every day has risen by almost 321,000, according to new figures.
The annual survey of school lunch take-up for the 2009-10 year, carried out by the School Food Trust and the Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA), showed that take-up of healthy school lunches increased in both primary and secondary schools.
In primary schools, the proportion of children eating a school lunch rose from 39.3% in 2008-09 to 41.4% in 2009-10, a rise of 2.1 percentage points. Secondary schools saw a 0.8-point increase, from 35% in 2008-09 to 35.8% in 2009-10.
The news follows comments by Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, attacking Jamie Oliver's school dinner campaign saying that "people did not want to be lectured" about healthier eating.
School Food Trust chair Rob Rees said: "The number of children eating school meals had been on a downward spiral for many years when Jamie Oliver brought the issue into the nation's living room, leading to even more children and parents turning their backs on canteens. Now, following the introduction of national standards for meals and the hard work to improve the dining room experience for children, this is being reversed - disproving the myth that children simply don't want to eat healthy food.
"However, the number of children eating school meals is still in the minority, so the School Food Trust, schools, caterers, local authorities and cooks still have a huge amount to do before we can say the school meals revolution is complete."
Beverley Baker, LACA chair, said: "This is a remarkable achievement by everyone involved in the provision of school food. However, the figures show that although more children are having a school meal every day than last year, this is still less than half of the school population. In order to maintain take-up, or increase further the number of children and young people having a school meal, it is essential that we continue to give maximum support to the service so that we can sustain quality and ensure that prices remain affordable for parents.
"In a time of economic uncertainty and tightening of belts, it is even more important for children and young people to have school meals. At a time when discretionary spending for parents is under pressure, school meals represent better value for money than a packed lunch when you consider the higher nutritional content and greater contribution they can make to children's diets and lifestyles as well as academic and physical achievement".
Last month, Education Secretary Michael Gove said he was scrapping plans by Ed Balls, his predecessor, to extend free school meals from next term to 500,000 of the very lowest paid.
By Neil Gerrard
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