EARLY-MORNING school "breakfast clubs" are being forced to take fresh fruit and yoghurt off the menu in favour of things children really like: sugary cereals and sausages.
A new study has found that the clubs are usually launched with good intentions, aiming to provide a nutritious start to the day for children who often arrive at school hungry. A typical menu might consist of low-sugar cereal, fruit, toast and a hot drink.
But within weeks, many clubs admit defeat as the healthy food goes untouched. In its place they are forced to offer Frosties, Coco Pops and hot items like sausage-in-a-roll and cheese on toast.
Dr Cathy Street, co-author of the study of 35 breakfast clubs, said that, with clubs facing financial problems, schools simply cannot afford to persevere with the healthy eating goals, which often drove them to set up the service in the first place.
She said: "They try to offer healthy options like fresh fruit and yoghurt for one or two weeks, and then find it is going untouched. In an ideal world, schools would continue offering these foods for a while longer, say until half-term, in the hope that the children will be won over.
"But because so many of the clubs are existing on such tight budgets, they just cannot do it. They reluctantly take the decision that it's better for the children to be eating something, rather than nothing at all."
The study by the New Policy Institute, an independent research body, concludes that clubs in deprived areas - where children need a meal most - are most at risk because of their difficulties covering their costs.
Two-thirds of clubs in poor areas interviewed said children routinely turned up for school hungry. One inner-city primary school had to offer early meals after finding children were persistently stealing other pupils' lunch boxes at break-time.
The study estimates that the number of breakfast clubs in the UK has grown rapidly in the 1990s to between 400 and 600, mostly for primary children.
The authors said many struggle because, while start-up funding is easily available, support for running costs is hard to find.
The recently-appointed schools minister Jacqui Smith last week announced a three-year, pound;165,000 award scheme by cereal manufacturers Kellogg's, in association with the charity Education Extra, to help schools establish breakfast clubs.