ALMOST one in five poor children in North Yorkshire are missing out on their free school meals – despite 100 per cent take up in much of the North-East.

An alarming divide in the numbers of eligible youngsters not receiving free healthy dinners has emerged during a parliamentary inquiry into hunger and poverty.

Now that inquiry is exploring whether struggling families in wealthier areas are less likely to claim the meals because of a fear of being stigmatised.

And it is poised to recommend that all local councils adopt a pioneering scheme run by several North-East authorities, which automatically registers pupils for free dinners.

Frank Field, the Labour MP leading the probe, said: “The evidence we have received shows schools can be, and often are, a highly effective line of defence against hunger.

“Free school meals are of enormous help to families getting by on a low income as they remove some of the pressure on weekly household budgets.

"But thousands of children are missing out on a good meal each day because of where they live.”

That problem appears to be particularly acute in North Yorkshire, where a staggering 1,500 pupils – or 18 per cent of those eligible – do not receive their meals.

They are pupils aged between four and 15, according to a department for education (Dfe) study released to the all-party inquiry, which has held evidence sessions in the region.

Other wealthier areas where large numbers are missing out include Wokingham (31 per cent), Buckinghamshire (25 per cent) and Richmond upon Thames, in London (28 per cent).

Yet, in much of the North-East – including County Durham, Darlington, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough – all eligible pupils get their free meals, according to the Dfe study.

A spokesman for Durham County Council said it used an ‘eligibility checking system’, which identifies which parents receive other income-related benefits.

North Yorkshire County Council said it did not use auto-registration, but instead relied on application forms in school ‘starter packs’, plus an annual newsletter urging families to claim.

A spokeswoman said: “We are aware that not all eligible families exercise their right to their children receiving a free school meal. However, we do point out the benefits.

“We are currently setting up an online application process to encourage eligible families of all school-age children to apply for a free school meal and continue to examine the range of options.”

Other areas of the region where pupils miss out include Gateshead (15 per cent), South Tyneside (nine per cent) and Stockton-on-Tees (five per cent).

The figures were revealed as Mr Field warned that more poor pupils could miss out when free meals are introduced for all four-to-seven-year-olds, next month.

The flagship Liberal Democrat policy has been botched, with councils forced to spend an estimated £25m of their own cash to build extra kitchens and provide the food.

But a Dfe spokeswoman said: “There is no evidence to suggest extending this to all infant pupils will negatively impact on those children.”