Secondary school meals provision in England is set to collapse unless immediate action is taken, experts have warned.
The warning comes in advance of research, due to be unveiled tomorrow, which will reveal that total secondary school meals uptake has fallen to its lowest level since mandatory provision was introduced in 1944.
The Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA) report will claim the future of catering in secondary schools is now critical because of the negative publicity generated by Jamie Oliver and the prescriptive food regulations introduced in 2006.
The research, to be officially unveiled at LACA's annual conference, says three-quarters of schools have experienced a fall in school meals uptake with an average fall of 17% since 2004. This leaves total meal uptake of 35% at secondary level (down from 42% in 2003/04), the lowest level since 1944.
LACA blames overly prescriptive guidelines, the increased production costs of the food and the additional training and manpower required.
LACA chair Sandra Russell said: "We cannot expect to reverse an embedded eating culture overnight, nor can we convert teenagers to a healthier regime by force. We are in danger of the secondary-school meals service fragmenting or dying altogether if we are not careful."
However, there was better news for catering in primary schools, where the research suggests the decline may have been arrested, with a fall in uptake this year of just 7% this year, compared with 12% in 2005/06. Total meal uptake at primary level now stands at 40%.
The School Food Trust, the body set up by the Government in 2005 to promote the new school meals guidelines, said the situation was not as bad as LACA claimed, but admitted that its own research revealed a 12% decline in uptake over the past year.
The Government committed to spending £220m on school meals between 2005 and 2008 and a further £240m up until 2011, but critics have consistently claimed this is not enough. Details on how the second tranche of money can be spent are expected to be unveiled soon.
For more on the school meals debate see Caterer's report on the LACA conference next week.
By Chris Druce