AN URGENT review has been ordered to tackle the growing problem of “holiday hunger” among North-East children.

Anti-poverty campaigners fear while children from poor families are well-fed during school term, because they get a free two-course school meal in the middle of the day, many go hungry during the holidays.

The issue prompted a cross-party Parliamentary inquiry and has attracted the attention of the North East Child Poverty Commission.

Now Durham County Council has ordered a review of the issue, with the aim of understanding more about the problem and increasing take-up of free school meals.

Nearly half (42 per cent) of County Durham’s population live in the most deprived third of neighbourhoods nationally; according to the nationally accepted measure, more than a fifth of children (22.7 per cent) under 16 in the county live in poverty, compared to 17.5 per cent across the country; and, worryingly, this poverty gap has grown in recent years.

Free school meals were available to all County Durham primary school pupils between 2009 and 2011, as part of a pilot project run by the last Labour Government, and research showed this improved children’s diet and helped them achieve better in class.

However, the pilot was not continued. Free school meals are now available for all key stage one pupils, meaning those in reception, year one and year two, after which the provision is based on family income.

While free school meal take-up by those eligible is above 80 per cent in the county’s primary schools, with more than 7,000 meals served every day, the figure falls to 72 per cent in secondary schools, and this has caused concern for councillors.

One of the Parliamentary inquiry’s 77 recommendations was to introduce measures to increase take up of free school meals.

Yesterday (Wednesday, February 3), Durham County Council’s children and young people’s overview and scrutiny committee ordered a review, to begin in March.

Evidence will be taken from school administrators and children and a report will be presented to the authority’s cabinet in September. One of the questions will be how to tackle to stigma of accepting free school meals.

Various voluntary and charity projects exist to tackle holiday hunger, many supported by County Durham Foodbank or East Durham Area Action Partnership (AAP). In Murton, square meals were made available for 50p. When children were asked to name the brunch club, they called it Hungry Holidays.