A FORMER Lib Dem council leader has challenged York Labour’s flagship £100,000-a-year free school meals pilot - claiming it’s a waste of money that is doing little to help children eat more healthily.

Figures obtained by Steve Galloway under a Freedom of Information request seem to suggest that only 26 more children every day are eating a proper cooked school lunch at Westfield Primary School now than before the pilot was launched.

According to the figures obtained by Mr Galloway, a total of 284 children at Westfield ate a hot school lunch on December 20 last year, before the pilot scheme was introduced.

That compared to the 310 children at Westfield eating a school lunch on Match 20 this year, after the introduction of the pilot.

The council has committed £100,000 this year and another £100,000 next year to keep the Westfield pilot running – and Mr Galloway claims that is not a good use of scarce council cash.

York Press: Former York council leader Steve GallowayFormer York council leader Steve Galloway (Image: Supplied)

“The funding which is available could be better spent, not least supporting children who are genuinely disadvantaged,” he said.

But the city’s education boss Cllr Bob Webb has hit back, claiming that Mr Galloway is presenting ‘skewed’ figures – and has chosen for comparison a day when school lunch take-up at Westfield is low.

“Other days have seen much, much higher take-up,” Cllr Webb said.

Of the 284 children at Westfield who ate a free school lunch on December 20 last year, before the pilot was introduced, 205 were either younger children who qualified automatically for a free school meal – or older primary school children who qualified because the family income was below £7,400 a year.

York Press: City of York Council education boss Cllr Bob WebbCity of York Council education boss Cllr Bob Webb (Image: Supplied)

The remaining 79 were children whose parents paid for their school lunch.

They seem to be the main beneficiaries of the scheme.

Mr Galloway said: “What seems to have happened is that children whose parents used to pay for a school meal have continued – in the main – to take it, albeit now at taxpayers’ expense."

Perhaps surprisingly, according to the figures, 129 children still ate a packed lunch prepared by their parents on March 20 – despite the offer of a free, cooked school lunch.

Instead of forking out so much money on a free meal offer that many children were not taking up, the real question the council should be asking, Mr Galloway said, was why so many children prefer to eat a pack-up than a cooked meal.

But Cllr Webb dismissed Mr Galloway’s claims.

“This trial of free school meals is about helping to address an affordability problem for many families who for some time have been barely managing,” he said.

“The figures presented (by Mr Galloway) are skewed and, unsurprisingly, choose a day with amongst the lowest take up when other days have seen much, much higher take up.

“To get a balanced view the current pilot of free school meals and breakfasts will be assessed by independent researchers later this year to establish what has worked well and what might change in a future rollout.

“In the meantime, the initiative continues helping with affordability for some of our most in need families and, according to the schools themselves, (is) also improving behaviour, attendance and engagement in learning in the classroom”.

The York Hungry Minds Appeal

The free school meal pilot at Westfield was introduced following the launch of the York Hungry Minds appeal late last year.

Launched following a Labour election pledge, the aim of the appeal is to raise enough money to be able to extend free lunches like those now being offered at Westfield to children in other York primary schools.

The city council put up the first £100,000 to allow the free lunches to be piloted for a year at Westfield, to see what impact they had on children’s health and learning.

The pilot was later extended with the commitment of another £100,000 of council cash.

On top of that, the Hungry Minds Appeal raised a further £40,000 by Christmas – thanks in part to a hefty donation from York-based Persimmon – to enable a similar pilot at Burton Green School, where children are getting a free breakfast for a year.

But the hope is that, if the pilots prove a success, and if money keeps coming in through the York Hungry Minds Appeal, more children at more primary schools in York will be able to benefit.

The York Hungry Minds Appeal was enthusiastically backed by the Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell in December.

He said: "I think we all know that if you are hungry, you cannot concentrate on much else. And the tragedy is that there are children in schools today who are hungry, and they're falling behind at school because of that.”

You can donate to the York Hungry Minds Appeal at www.tworidingscf.org.uk/appeal/york-hungry-minds/