COUNCIL bosses have come under scrutiny after it was revealed the uptake of free school meals from primary 1-4 failed to meet its target in 2020.

The programme ensures all junior pupils have access to a lunch, whether they can afford to pay for it or not while senior pupils can also benefit depending on their circumstances.

A chart included at the end of a report presented to councillors shows that the uptake of free school meals in from p1-p4 for the first part of 20/21 sat at 0 but rose to 36% and 66% by the end of the second and third quarters respectively missing its target of 75%.

The number of students using benefiting from the programme in secondary schools during the same time frame rose from 0 to just over 60% and then to 80% meeting the council’s objective.

But data for the previous two financial years is missing which means councillors are unaware how successful the free school meal programme has been.

Labour’s education spokeswoman councillor Aileen McKenzie said: “I would like to know why the data is incomplete in the report presented to the committee from 2018 to the second quarter of 2021.

“Why is there such a poor uptake of school meals for those entitled?”

A council officer told the committee that she would be happy to come back on all the questions presented to her by Ms McKenzie at the next meeting.

Councillor Saqib Ahmed added: “I echo the concerns councillor McKenzie has. I just wanted to add one thing and ask council officers to find out if the schools are aware of the children who are supposed to be getting a free school meal and why there is a poor uptake.

“Can I also ask if the parents know or if they are being contacted by the school to ask why they are not taking the free school meal.”

In Glasgow 29,000 families meet the criteria to be eligible for free meals in primary and secondary schools.

All primary 1-4s are entitled to a school dinner but some children may choose to go home or bring a packed lunch with them.

During lockdown the local authority also provided Farmfoods vouchers to 35,000 families eligible for the school clothing grant to ensure young people didn’t go hungry.

Following the meeting Ms McKenzie, added: “It’s understandable that there will never be 100% uptake of eligible free school meals, some children will always prefer a packed lunch, however these figures are very disappointing.

“One of the barriers to the uptake of free school meals is the process of registering online, which is digital exclusion and the stigma a parent may feel when having to physically apply.

“Automation of free school meals for families in receipt of council administered benefits like Housing Benefit, or Council Tax Reduction, or even the School Clothing Grant would eliminate these barriers.

“During this pandemic and period of financial hardship I would expect Glasgow City Council to play a more proactive role in the uptake of free school meals and reaching out to families who may be struggling at this time.

“In any situation where a parent is paying for a school meal their child is entitled to get for free, that money could be saved and spent elsewhere like on heating their home, clothing or even providing a more nutritious evening meal.”

Leanne McGuire, of Glagow City Parents Group believes that the stigma surrounding free school meals can encourage pupils to skip lunch.

She said: "There is definitely a stigma - for instance in secondary school many of the young people like to get out of the school for lunch which means any children accessing FSM will feel left out or maybe even peer pressure to skip lunch to hang out with friends.

"A part of feedback we have received from the primaries in the past year - with COVID19 guidance in schools it meant there was a reduced menu in operation with less choice so many families were turning to packed lunches to give their children more variety."

A council spokeswoman confirmed: “It was agreed at committee that figures from previous years will be brought back to a future meeting.”