NEW figures show almost one-in-five children in Lancashire are entitled to a free meal at lunchtime.

Of the 176,600 pupils on the school roll, 32,300 can claim.

But 2,400 are still not taking advantage of what could be their only hot meal of the day — equivalent to almost five per cent.

According to the figures, published by the Department for Education, 29,900 children in the region are claiming their free school dinners.

It is the first time the government has studied the take up of free meals.

In Blackburn with Darwen, 5,200 of the 5,700 pupils are claiming their free meals.And in Lancashire 24,700 of the 26,600 children are claiming their meal.

They are provided to both primary and secondary school children from households receiving benefits including income support and jobseekers allowance. Parents can register via schools or their local authority.

The report said pupils with learning or special educational needs, and pupils from larger families were more likely to claim free school meals.

Earlier this year Lancashire County Council launched a scheme to make it easier for parents to claim the meals by sharing information between county, district and borough councils.

The scheme helped identify families entitled to free school meals but not currently receiving them.

County Councillor Geoff Driver, leader of Lancashire County Council, said: “The evidence nationally suggests that the main reason families don’t claim free school meals is that they just aren't aware that they are entitled to apply. The situation is made more difficult by what they perceive as a complex process for making an application.

“However, in Lancashire the application process is simple.” A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We want all these children to have access to the free nutritious daily meal they are entitled to.”