MORE and more poor school children are shunning free school meals and opting for a packed lunch, according to research carried out by the University of Essex.

The research points to kids and their parents being afraid of a prejudice attached to free school meals.

The study, carried out by Angus Holford, at the Institute for Social Economic Research at Essex University, compared the take-up of free school meals in Scotland, where the Government introduced it universally in areas of high deprivation, with elsewhere, where parents anonymously pre-register to receive the benefit.

In Scotland the model showed a higher take-up among those already entitled, both during and after the experiment, whereas the second model, showed a substantial increase across the board.

Mr Holford said: “Peer pressure is undoubtedly important.

“Results show that in a typical school, a ten per cent rise in peer-group take-up would reduce non-participation by almost a quarter.

“This is both because children would rather eat with their friends, and because people set greater store by the actions of their friends and classmates than information from authorities.”

He also recommended schools should let all classmates eat together to avoid stigmatisation.

Claire Rick, a spokeswoman for Children’s Food Trust, added: “At a time when many families are struggling to make ends meet, it’s never been so important to do everything we can to encourage them to register for free school meals if they qualify.”