ESSEX schoolchildren are tucking into more free school meals than ever.

As national figures reveal only a third of children are taking advantage of a free dinner, our county is bucking the trend with even more youngsters having a free school dinner.

Former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg introduced free school meals for all pupils in reception and Year 1 and Yerar 2 in September 2014, in a scheme expected to save parents roughly £400 a year per child.

In Essex, nearly 40,000 free school meals are eaten each day – up 11,000 per day year on year.

More children are also enjoying free school meals in Southend with 5,600 pupils eating free lunches in 2015 compared to 2,168 in 2012. In Thurrock, 5,467 children had free lunches in 2015, compared to 2,051 in 2012.

Ray Gooding, Essex county councillor responsible for education, said: “It’s great when you consider it was a difficult thing to get in place the take up has been pretty good.

“We were given about eight to nine months to make sure schools were ready and I think the situation was a lot of schools didn’t have the right facilities or enough space.”

Nationally, the slow take up has been blamed on the quality of the meals, something Mr Gooding believes Essex gets right with 81 per cent of pupils enjoying free school meals.

He said: “I think part of the success is the sort of food we have delivered. We all have memories of school dinners being stewed cabbage and lumpy mashed potato, but that is off the menu and there are salads and healthy options as well as comfort food once a week.”

In Essex, 43,119 children enjoyed free school meals when a census was taken in January 2015, compared to just 13,572 in 2012.

As well as the efforts to make the meals more appealing Mr Gooding believes the fact the meals are now universal, rather than just for low-income families has made a difference.

Previously families had to apply for the free school meals with only low-income families eligible for the lunches.

Mr Gooding said: “Most schools manage it carefully, so that it didn’t become a stigma.

“The hope is children will get used to and enjoy their free school meals, so that when they enter Key Stage Two parents will want to continue it for them, including those who would normally have to pay.”