Thousands of children in Northumberland are receiving a free school meal for the first time.
The Government’s new policy, which came into effect this week, enables young people aged between four and seven across the country to eat a lunch cooked in the school kitchen at no charge.
According to research by The Children’s Society, an estimated 6,631 county pupils in reception, year one and year two will benefit. It will most help families whose incomes were only just too high to get the food for free under the means testing system.
Abbeyfields First School in Morpeth, which runs its own catering service, is among those that have made adjustments to cope with the greater number of pupils having school meals.
Previously, years one to four have eaten in the north hall (Years 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 at separate times) and the nursery and reception groups had lunch in the smaller south hall.
Abbeyfields expects its school meals uptake to rise from 55 per cent on average to more than 70 per cent and as a result, lunchtime has increased to one-and-a-half hours in total from one hour.
The reception children will now eat in the north hall, which means that there will be three different meal groupings in this area to ensure that each pupil has the same amount of time for their lunch break as in previous years.
A new fridge and extra cutlery, bowls, pans and dishes have been purchased and the second oven, which hasn’t been used much in the past, has been serviced.
The school’s business manager, Mairi Gibson, said: “This is a positive initiative because more children will be having school meals.
“We work to provide healthy, nutritious and well-balanced lunches that meet the Government’s guidelines and we know what a difference it makes in the classroom when pupils have regular school meals.
“We’re fortunate in that our three catering staff and our lunchtime supervisors are prepared to work flexible hours. They can work a little longer during a school day when necessary and this has allowed us to extend the lunchtime period.
“The county council helped us get ready for the new policy by funding free meals for reception, Year 1 and Year 2 pupils for two days around spring time. We have also received guidance from the Children’s Food Trust (a national charity).
“We encourage our children and their parents to suggest meals and we make as many of them as we possibly can. In addition, pupils nurture, cultivate and harvest vegetables planted in our allotment and some of them are used for school meals.”
She added that staff are still asking parents who think they would qualify for free school meals through means testing, which still applies to children from Year 3 onwards, to put forward an application as this determines how much money the school gets from the Government’s Pupil Premium initiative.