Every primary school pupil in England could receive free school meals under a scheme set to form a central plank of Labour's election manifesto.
If introduced across the country, the £1bn programme would include almost four million children and save families more than £300 per child per year. In a speech to the Labour Party conference, Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, announced a £40m two-year pilot programme, which will test whether the scheme should be introduced at all schools.
"We want a healthy lunch at school not just for some, but for every child," said Mr Balls. "We want to make sure children, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, are getting a free hot meal every school day."
Under the pilot, free school meals are to be given to all pupils aged four to 11 in two areas over two years, to measure the impact of healthy eating on health, behaviour and academic results. Meanwhile, a third area will relax the current free school meal eligibility rules to allow more poorerchildren to benefit.
The scheme – which was announced yesterday by Mr Balls and Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary – could be extended across the rest of England if the expected health and education benefits are confirmed. But critics of the proposal said that Labour might not still be in power then.
Ministers have so far been reluctant to commit to expanding the free meals scheme because of the cost. They want to see a scientific study to confirm the potential health benefits before deciding whether to back the plan. The scheme would form part of the Government's attempt to tackle obesity, which costs the NHS £4.2bn a year.
A government source said: "A lot of people say the benefits could outweigh the costs but we need information before we can start thinking about that."
But Mr Balls told BBC Radio 4's The World At One: "I think the benefits will prove to be substantial. If we can also show that providing free lunches makes a real difference, then we'll act."
Mr Johnson has also been enthusiastic about the idea after seeing the results of a free-meals scheme in Hull. He said the pilot aimed to build on local initiatives which appeared to show that children who eat a healthy lunch are more likely to be better behaved, better able to learn and more likely to see their general health improve.
One in six primary pupils, or nearly 660,000 children, is currently entitled to free meals, but 20 per cent do not take up theoption, with child poverty campaigners complaining that many parents are too proud to claim.