One in five pupils in Mansfield and Ashfield are picking up free school meals - the highest across the county, statistics have shown.
Financial hardships among parents and guardians shows that around 20 per cent of youngsters attending local authority-run schools are entitled to meals in the last five years, putting is well ahead of any of the other district councils in the area.
The nearest authority was Bassetlaw, at around 15 per cent, followed by Broxtowe and Gedling which between 12 and 14 per cent.
The average across the county for the last five years, not including the city, was 14.5 per cent.
Following a Freedom of Information request by the Chad, for the last five years around 2,900 children have been eligible in Mansfield, while more than 3,000 are registered in Ashfield.
But while our region leads the list, it is not a concern for Nottinghamshire County Council, which is urging more parents who may be entitled to free meals to apply.
Those include people on income support, Job Seekers’ Allowance (JSA) and a raft of other benefits.
The meals are £2.15 a day, but many are still missing out.
John Slater, service director for education standards and inclusion at Nottinghamshire County Council, said: “Studies have shown clear links between what children eat at lunchtime in school and how they focus with their teachers in the afternoon.
“It’s thought that better food in schools can also affect what children choose to eat at other times of the day.
“That’s why it’s so important that children have a good healthy lunch during the school day. When children have eaten well, they feel better and this in turn improves their concentration and ability to learn.
“Regardless of free school meals for all infant-aged children, we would urge parents of both infant and older children, who receive one of the qualifying benefits, to register for free school meals as this will also enable their child’s school to claim pupil premium from the Government – this is additional funding given to publicly-funded schools in England to raise attainment.
“We also notify parents where a child is eligible to receive a free school meal and qualifies for pupil premium - and our schools work really hard to encourage eligible parents to get what they’re entitled to.
“This extra money can help to buy new equipment and resources and schools recognise that the pupil premium allows them to make good decisions about the early interventions needed to narrow the gaps in attainment as quickly as possible for disadvantaged children. Currently the premium amounts to £1,300 for each eligible primary-aged pupil and £935 per eligible secondary-aged pupil.”
Since September 2014, all pupils in reception and infant classes at state-funded schools automatically became entitled to free school meals, so when many families are struggling to make ends meet, it can offer extra much-needed support.
A firm believer in school meals is Kim Wakefield, headteacher at Mansfield’s Abbey Primary.
With the introduction of the free school meals for all infants regardless of income, she was keen to maximise the number of those eligible.
In a pioneering move for the region, the old menu was ripped up and staff liaised with the children to devise a rolling three-week menu to offer healthy food that they liked.
The choice now includes roast dinners, pasta, fish dishes, jacket potatoes, sandwiches, salads and fruit.
As a result, the take up has increased by 10 per cent, with 93 per cent of the infants now receiving the automatic free meal, and around 65 per cent for the juniors.
“We had a large number of pupils not taking it up and I was concerned by that,” said Kim.
“We went through the menu and conducted a pupil poll about that they liked. There was no point serving them food that they did not like.
“We sat down with catering and came up with a bespoke three-week menu, so we have a really good choice now.
“It’s been a challenge, but we want to make dinnertime as good for them as possible, it’s important.
“The children think it’s fabulous and a lot of the parents think it’s great, although there are some that still need convincing.”
The scheme has been so successful that Nottinghamshire County Council are now looking to roll it out across other schools.