Local authorities will scrap their catering services if school meal uptake continues to fall, experts have warned.
The forecast follows the first stocktake of the year by school caterers and a BBC survey that found numbers had fallen by an average of 5.8% since the introduction of healthier school food in September.
Local authorities contacted by Caterer had found that primary school uptake had risen or remained largely flat, while secondary schools were down by anything up to 10%.
Irene Carroll, chair of the Local Authority Caterers Association, said that while authorities understood change wouldn't happen overnight, the clock was ticking.
"A large number of catering operations are in deficit, including my own in Southampton," she said. "They haven't got the same shareholder pressure of private contractors but they will naturally start to query the service and its long-term viability."
Last September Swindon council became the first authority to close its service because of the "Jamie Oliver effect" and the head of school meals in nearby Oxfordshire said the service was now under review.
Head of catering facilities management Colin Garnham-Edge said: "Current levels can last for only two or three years. After that it won't be sustainable."
Nigel Forbes, managing partner of consultancy Litmus Partnership, said local authorities needed to adapt to survive. "They may have to buy in some advice from the high street or look at more cost-effective ways of producing and distributing food around a particular region," he said.
School food consultant Julian Edwards said more cash from central or local government was the key to avoiding more situations such
By Tom Bill