Cash-strapped schools in disadvantaged areas may have to hand out free school meals on a 'first come, first served' basis, leaving poor children at risk of going hungry, according to an exclusive report in The Independent.
The newspaper has learned that Labour MP Frank Field, who has long been a vocal anti-poverty campaigner, has written a letter to new Education Secretary Nicky Morgan urging her to look into the risk of deprived children missing out on their free school meal.
Field, the MP for Birkenhead, said his concerns were fuelled by the what he claims is the incompetence of the Government's 'botched introduction of universal infant free school meals' in September.
Faced with a £25 million funding shortfall, many schools are reportedly scrabbling to find the necessary funds to expand their dining facilities to comply with the new pledge.
Field has cautioned that overstretched resources may lead to schools being unable to make adequate provision for all eligible pupils.
An ongoing investigation into free school meal provision is currently being conducted by the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty, of which Field is the chairman.
The inquiry has heard worrying evidence that many disadvantaged children are already missing out on the free school meals they are entitled to.
The biggest problem appears to be low take-up rates in some areas, with 38 per cent of eligible pupils in the Bracknell Forest region failing to register for free dinners.
In Sunderland, however, the inquiry notes, schools use automatic registration rather than requiring families to submit a form. The result is that that 100 per cent of eligible pupils in the area are receiving their free school dinner.
In light of the issues which the inquiry suggests are already plaguing the free school meals system, the increased pressure of the Government's pledge to provide universal infant free schools dinners might lead to further problems.
Field warned that schools who are struggling to meet their obligation to provide free meals to all four to seven-year-olds might be forced to shortchange older children by operating on a 'first come, first served' basis that might see some deprived pupils go without.
"The evidence we have received shows that schools can be, and often are, a highly effective line of defence against hunger," Field is quoted as saying in his letter to Morgan. "But thousands of children are missing out on a good meal each day because of where they live."
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