A jump in the number of children entitled to free school meals has been blamed on the recession.
More than 17,000 more pupils can now claim the benefit, making it unlikely the Government will hit its target to halve child poverty by next year.
The numbers claiming had been dropping in the past four years and the Local Authorities Caterers Association predicts that the rise is set to continue.
Pupils receive free school meals (FSM) if their family income is Pounds 15,575 or less or if their parents receive certain benefits. The steepest rise is among primary school children, from 15.5 per cent to 15.9. In secondaries, the figure has risen from 13.1 per cent to 13.4, and in special schools from 31.6 per cent to 32.1 per cent.
A separate report released last week by the Institute of Fiscal Studies found that the fall in the number of children living below the poverty line had stalled in the past two years, leaving an extra 200,000 in low- income families.
There is a strong link between free school meals and underperformance. Just 40 per cent of children on free school meals got five good grades at GCSE last year, compared to 63.5 per cent of those not entitled to them.
Neera Sharma, a poverty researcher at Barnardos, said ministers seemed reluctant to tackle growing child poverty.
"Having a child on free school meals means their family are far more likely to take out expensive loans to pay for uniform and school trips and go through misery and struggles trying to make ends meet," she said.
The charity wants the Government to stop giving child tax credit to families who earn more than Pounds 60,000 and use the money to increase benefits to poorer people.
Peter Price, of the National Primary Headteachers' Association, said he had seen first hand a rise in children getting free school meals at his school in Liverpool, but felt claiming the benefit could make a positive difference to pupils' lives.
"Many families have had to take up free school meals very quickly," he said. "In the past, those eligible often wouldn't claim because they didn't like the quality or variety of food; now FSM children want to stay for lunches because most schools are promoting healthy food."
Statistics on FSM children are from the annual schools census, taken every January. The rise in take-up could leave local councils out of pocket because of strict government rules about when teachers can apply to fund the scheme, caterers have warned.
Data on those eligible for free meals is collected by schools in the autumn term and sent via local authorities to the Department for Children, Schools and Families.But the figures cannot be updated during the year. If numbers rise, councils have to foot the bill. They can't then claim this money back.
Food for thought
- In 2002, just 18.8 per cent of boys on free school meals got five good GCSE grades; this has now risen to 35.4 per cent. But 44.7 per cent got five good grades, up from 27.3 per cent in 2002.
- Children entitled to free school meals are far more likely to be excluded than their peers. In 200607, 12 per cent were given a fixed- period exclusion compared to 5 per cent of all pupils.
- In the same year, 0.28 per cent were permanently excluded compared to 0.12 per cent of pupils not entitled to free meals.
- All primary-age children in County Durham and Newham in London will receive free school meals from this September in a pilot scheme to see if health and wellbeing improve. Source: DCFS.