A BALANCE is needed between increasing the cost of school dinners and encouraging greater uptake, a councillor warns.

During discussions of the school meal service in Pembrokeshire the need to increase the numbers eating hot dinners was highlighted along with the “significant” debt parents owe.

A report to the schools overview and scrutiny committee on Tuesday (April 2) states that the total money owed for school meals is £185,941 with 675 families in arrears.

One hundred and two of those have had court orders issued against them for not paying for their children’s food.

Cllr Michelle Bateman said on Tuesday that there would be a “tipping point” if school meal prices increased too much. She said the issue required a “balance.”

She added that for her youngest child it was “cheaper to provide a healthy packed lunch than use the meals service.”

Cllr Bateman also reminded members that often children preferred a packed lunch and parents were happier knowing they would eat what was provided.

The council intends to increase school meal prices by 35p over the next three years, following 30p increases over the past three.

A school’s policy on lunchtime access outside the premises, the length of break and early finishes on Fridays at some schools also has an impact on meal uptake.

Uptake of free schools meals also needs to be improved, the committee heard, and it resolved to recommend to cabinet that every effort to signpost families to advice be made.

The introduction of Universal Credit will increase the numbers of those eligible for free meals which are provided anonymously using the school cashless system.

Other ways of managing payments include spreading the cost over 12 months with a direct debit and discounts are available for those with three or more children.

Draft debt recovery measures will include the possibility of children being refused school meals and referrals to the council’s social care team if packed lunches are not provided instead, according to the report.

This was questioned by Cllr Bateman who said it would not encourage people to come to the council for help.

She was told that it would be referred to Team Around the Family not child protection.

“If they are struggling to feed their children – be it a packed lunch or school dinner – it is a problem and we want to work with that family to help them,” said director of schools Kate Evan-Hughes.

Cllr Mike Evans said he could not support the refusal of secondary school meal access until primary school debts were cleared, saying “it’s not the child’s debt.”

He was told by Ian Eynon, head of finance, that this was not enforced during the first week of school and agreed that this could be extended to the first month in some cases, while the debt was paid.

The report will go to cabinet for further consideration before a final decision is made.