THOUSANDS of children could be going hungry because their families cannot afford to feed them properly.

That's the stark warning from a hard-hitting new study examining food poverty among children in Bradford.

The report, by public health bosses, says 33,000 children across the district are living in poverty and at risk of going hungry.

Researchers spoke to focus groups of health workers, council staff and voluntary and community groups, who described what they were seeing in their day-to-day work.

They identified poor White British families, central and eastern Europeans and asylum seekers as being particularly at risk of food poverty.

The focus groups said the coalition government's introduction of free school meals for all infants had made a difference. Initiatives like school breakfast clubs were also praised.

One person working in schools said: "Until children had the offer of having some food, they weren’t saying that they were hungry.

"But as a result of actually giving them some food they’re actually going to staff and saying that they’re hungry.

"It was perhaps as though they didn’t even recognise that they were feeling hungry."

The National Union of Teachers' Bradford spokesman Ian Murch said it was a problem teachers were familiar with, and seemed to be getting worse as benefit cutbacks increased.

He said: "Sadly, it's true. I don't teach any more but I have experience of it as a teacher, seeing children who have got no money for lunch and therefore don't get lunch.

"Sometimes the family is too poor to afford as much food as they need, sometimes children are in chaotic family situations where there is no support for that child - no-one is able to make them a packed lunch or provide them with the money to buy that lunch.

"They may not even have had any breakfast before they went to school."

Mr Murch said the reason asylum seekers or EU migrants were an at-risk group was because their children often didn't qualify for free school meals, unless they were in infant classes where free meals are universal.

He added: "There is lots of evidence that this impacts on children's ability to learn. That is how the Liberal Democrats persuaded the Conservatives in government to introduce the free school meals, because all the research shows it has an impact on learning."

The report also says Bradford has a higher-than average number of underweight children.

Health bosses also found a high proportion of obese and overweight children who had nutrient deficiencies, although this could not be entirely attributed to poverty.

It calls for immediate help for people without food as well as longer-term work to tackle the causes of food poverty and improve access to affordable meals.

A Bradford Council scrutiny committee will meet next week to discuss the findings.

Councillor Val Slater, deputy leader of the local authority, said: "There is already a great deal of work being carried out in Bradford to tackle food poverty and access to affordable food.

"Third sector organisations, faith groups, businesses and the council have all been working together to co-ordinate limited public resources so that they are as effective as possible across the district."

But Cllr Slater acknowledged there was still more to be done.

She said: "As well as helping people get a living wage, we also need to ensure families have the access to the knowledge and skills to be able to cook affordable and healthy meals."

Councillor Mike Gibbons, Conservative spokesman for children's social care, urged people to donate what they could to help the hungry this Christmas.

He said: "The lack of regular meals is a serious problem throughout the country and I would hope that everyone, particularly over the Christmas and winter period, will look to be as generous as possible to help with feeding and looking after children and indeed vulnerable adults.

"In 2015/16 really we should be looking to see the end of people going hungry in a civilised economy like the UK's."

The regeneration and economy overview and scrutiny committee will meet on Wednesday at 6pm at City Hall.