Caterers this week branded new Government nutritional standards for schools meals "unachievable" without more cash.
They claim the new regulations, effective from September, cannot be implemented with only the Government's pledge of £220m over three years.
Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA) chairman Kevin McKay said: "Spread over three years, £220m equates to an increase of just 12p per meal - that's the equivalent of just two cherry tomatoes. It's unachievable."
New rules include the use of higher-quality meat, more fruit and vegetables and the banning of crisps and chocolate.
Scolarest, the education division of Compass Group, said the cash represented only 30% of what was needed. A spokesman said the situation was made worse by the fact that not all schools had received their cash. "Many are not aware of the full funding available. This means changes cannot be implemented in a number of areas."
Claims of underfunding tally with last October's report by the School Meals Review Panel to then Education Secretary Ruth Kelly, which forecast a £550m shortfall.
But a spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills defended the cash pledge. "£220m of new money has gone into the system but it is equally vital that caterers are supported. That's why we set up the School Food Trust, which will help schools make the changes."
Food service consultant Vic Laws said a key obstacle was uptake.
The number of children signed up for school meals has fallen by between 10% and 15% since Jamie Oliver's Channel 4 documentary, Jamie's School Dinners.
New Government targets aim to raise numbers eating school meals by 4% by March 2008. However, McKay said: "Based on present funding, the sustainability of the school meals service for some may not be possible unless a 10% increase is achieved sooner than 2008."
Minimum wage increases in October will further heap pressure on caterers and some fear parents will not pay more if costs are passed on to them. "There is a £2 ceiling," Laws said. "If we go over that, it will hit uptake even harder."
Others believe that there will be only patchy implementation of the new rules in September. Food service consultant Julian Edwards said: "Caterers have been going up the wall waiting for the announcement. With only a few months to go until September, the Government can't bully schools into imposing the new regime."
The new rules
- Low-quality meat products, fizzy drinks, crisps and chocolate are banned from school meals.
- High-quality meat, poultry or oily fish available "on a regular basis".
- A minimum of two portions of fruit and vegetables with every meal.
- Deep-fried items restricted to two portions in a week.
- Confectionary, chocolate, crisps and fizzy drinks banned from vending machines and tuck shops.
By Tom Bill