FIRST Minister Carwyn Jones has been invited to sample school dinners in Wrexham in the wake of a call for a major review of school catering in Wales.
Clwyd South AM Ken Skates said the rising price of food and complaints about nutritional standards is making the traditional school dinner more difficult for councils to afford.
The Welsh Government needs a major scheme to boost the uptake of school dinners, he said, and has invited Mr Jones to Wrexham to discuss how to make school dinners more nutritious and affordable.
Mr Skates said: “Increased financial pressures must not lead to cheaper ingredients being used or more unhealthy meals being served.
“Farmers in North Wales produce some of the best produce in the world and I think parents will be reassured if they could see a stronger link between what is grown and reared locally and what is served on their children’s plate.
“While we need to keep costs affordable, we need to work with local farmers and producers to restore confidence in the traditional school dinner.”
Currently the Wrexham Council-run catering service offers a fixed two-course menu in primary schools for £2 while secondary school pupils can opt for individually-priced dishes, or a meal deal for £2.05.
But the number of children choosing to eat school dinners is falling.
Mr Skates added: “The numbers of children who are not eating school dinners because of the economic slowdown has increased over the last few years.
“Together with the rising price of food – up 32 per cent over the past five years – it is putting a huge strain on school catering budgets.
“In Wrexham we are seeing these forces impact on the choices the local authority is having to make in regard to school meals.”
Earlier this month it was revealed Wrexham Council is looking to recoup a predicted £270,000 overspend on school catering.
In a 2012-13 report, head of finance Mark Owen said £100,000 was an overspend on food, which is partly due to rising costs, while the price paid for school meals by pupils had been reduced by £170,000 in 2012-13.
The council is planning to make savings in school kitchens across the county borough, starting with portion sizes, staff hours, food supply orders and stock/waste.
The authority is also planning to promote the school catering service to increase income.
A Welsh Government spokesman said: “School meals can make an important contribution to the diets of children and young people. Consuming a more nutritious diet during the school day and developing the skills necessary to support healthy eating in the wider environment are critical in helping to reduce diet-related health problems like heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
“The Healthy Eating in Schools (Wales) Measure 2009 gives a legislative foundation to the approach the Welsh Government is taking forward via Appetite for Life, our agenda for improving the food and drink in schools.
“The relevant provisions in the measure are to be commenced later this year.”
Leader readers have taken to Facebook to share their thoughts on school dinners.
Dawn Butterton wrote: “My little one most of the time has sandwiches from home, and if she doesn’t she just gets a sandwich from the canteen. She is a very fussy eater though.”
Hayley Maggs wrote: “I prefer them now to what they used to be. They have more variety now, and both my girls have school dinners. They like some of them but not all, so do have a packed lunch sometimes.”
Kim Wright said: “My child is fussy so has a packed lunch but they should do something that's not so complicated as a meal that still can be healthy. My school meals were lovely and homemade.”
Joanne Pritchard wrote: “They put garlic in everything, they come home stinking.”