Stigma hits take-up of free meals
More than 20,000 children in Northern Ireland are missing out on their entitlement to free school meals, many due to fear of being teased, a report has warned.
Around one in five - 12,700 - of the 58,000 pupils signed up for the provision do not take it up, while an estimated 8,000 children who may be eligible have not been registered by their parents or guardians.
The government currently provides around £36 million a year for free school meals to low income families.
The findings were outlined in an Audit Office report on how healthy eating is promoted in the region's schools.
"A key barrier which is unique to inhibiting the uptake of free school meals is the fear of stigmatisation," the report said.
"Research by Child Poverty Action Group found that one third of children and two-fifths of parents indicated that embarrassment or fear of being teased is a key factor preventing children taking up their free school meals."
Auditors suggested adoption of cashless payment systems was one method of overcoming this barrier.
"Cashless systems generally involve the use of electronic cards instead of meal tickets so that pupils in receipt of free school meals are treated in the same way as those paying for their meal," said the report.
The systems, which are already in use in a number of schools in Northern Ireland, have also been credited with reducing bullying as there is no longer any lunch money to steal.
With research indicating that one in five boys and one in four girls are categorised as obese in their first year of primary school, the report stressed the importance of promoting healthy eating in schools.