This fact has been put down to a mix of northern pride, where families refuse to accept "hand outs", poor dining facilities and an administration system which does nothing to minimise the 'stigma' of signing up.
Nearly 30 per cent of primary and secondary pupils are entitled, compared to the national average of about 17 per cent. In secondaries just 43 per cent of those eligible took avantage, compared to the national average of nearly 80 per cent. The authority has introduced improvements to dining areas, helped by contributions from catering contractors. At Hetton school, a re-vamped McDonalds-style dining room has increased meal uptake by 50 per cent.
The city hopes to take part in research by the Child Poverty Action Group into the causes of low take-up. The charity is campaigning for an extension of free school meals to all children from homes receiving family tax credit.