HEAD teachers in York should do more to promote school meals and help parents find ways to help pay for them, a new report says.

City of York Council set up a task group last year to examine the uptake and popularity of school meals, and found at least 400 pupils a day whose parents or carers were registered for free meals but were not claiming them.

York's primary lunches are the most expensive in Yorkshire, at £2.25. The average in secondaries is £2.40.

The council met two Youth Council representatives from Fulford School, one who regularly took the hot food option and one who bought sandwiches.

It said they agreed Fulford's prices were very reasonable - £1.80 for a hot meal and hot pudding - but said friends at other schools were paying £2.20 for ‘just a small plate of food’.”

Fulford's cashless payment system means recipients of free meals cannot be easily identified. Such systems are seen to help tackle stigma, and let parents check what children have bought.

The youngsters said there was no incentive to choose the nutritious meals as they were "always more expensive”. Queuing for meals and not liking the food were also seen as issues.

The report, to go before cabinet next Tuesday, recommends the council write to parents eligible for free school meals, encouraging them to claim.

It also recommends the council consider acting as advisor on new arrangements and says: "Schools should be encouraged to be more flexible in when and how often parents can pay for school meals to ensure those on a low income are not excluded."

The report said cooked meals were healthier than packed lunches but many parents mistakenly thought otherwise.

Seventeen parents responded to the council's consultation. Half said the meals were unaffordable, some said they could afford them only some days, and some said the need to pre-pay in bulk was a barrier.

>>> Read the council report - item 8 on this agenda