AROUND 2,000 poor Bradford children are missing out on their free school meals, alarmed MPs are warning.
One in every 11 eligible pupils in the city do not receive free healthy dinners, according to figures released to a Parliamentary inquiry into hunger and poverty.
That proportion – nine per cent - is the highest in West Yorkshire, while local councils in other parts of the country achieve 100 per cent take up.
Now the inquiry is poised to recommend that all town halls adopt a pioneering scheme which automatically registers pupils for free dinners and avoids the “stigma” of applications.
Frank Field, the Labour MP leading the probe, said: “The evidence we have received shows schools can be, and often are, a highly effective line of defence against hunger.
“Free school meals are of enormous help to families getting by on a low income as they remove some of the pressure on weekly household budgets.
"But thousands of children are missing out on a good meal each day because of where they live.”
Councillor Ralph Berry, Bradford’s executive member for education, acknowledged the Council did “need to do more”, but insisted it was moving towards auto registration.
He said: “We are aware there is an issue of some families not going through the claims process, particularly what is called the ‘working poor’.
“They are people in poverty but where someone is in work, where there can be a resistance towards claiming state benefits, but we are working very hard to narrow the gap.”
Under auto-registration – adopted by some local councils in the North-East - parents are not required to fill in application forms for free school meals.
Instead, schools supply the names of parents, as well as their national insurance numbers and dates of birth, which are then matched against lists of people receiving other income-related benefits.
It is then a simple process for the council to tell the school which pupils are eligible for free meals – and for those children not to be charged.
Cllr Berry added: “We are working with schools on providing a screening and prompting system, in order to increase take-up.”
The Department for Education figures – covering pupils aged between four and 15 – show no eligible children are missing out on free school meals in Kirklees.
However, they are in both Calderdale (400, or seven per cent) and Leeds (1,000, or five per cent).
Auto-registration was set by the DfE but councils are not compelled to adopt it.
The figures were revealed as Mr Field warned that more poor pupils could miss out when free meals are introduced for all four-to-seven-year-olds, next month.
The flagship Liberal Democrat policy has been botched, with councils across the country forced to spend an estimated £25 million of their own cash to build extra kitchens and provide the food.
Mr Field warned of a “first come, first served” policy where schools lacked capacity – forcing older eligible children to the back of the queue.
But a DfE spokesman said: “There is no evidence to suggest extending this to all infant pupils will negatively impact on those children.”
And the policy won strong praise from medical experts who, in a letter in today’s Telegraph & Argus, argue it can help tackle childhood obesity.
They write: “We applaud the Government for their support of universal infant free school meals and the school food plan.
“Only one per cent of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards which apply to school food and there is evidence that children who eat a healthy school lunch consume more vegetables and fewer fizzy drinks and crisps.
“Providing a free healthy school lunch is a simple and effective way to improve children’s diets.”