The study, by The Food Foundation and The Bread and Butter Thing (TBBT), found that of the families who didn’t have access to Free School Meals 16 per cent had to send their child to school without lunch some days because they couldn’t afford school meals or packed lunches, with an additional 42 per cent worried this would happen in the future.
The survey also reported 32 per cent of parents said their child ate a smaller lunch at school some days because they cannot afford school meals or packed lunches.
TBBT, which runs 120 food clubs for people on low incomes across the North of England, received nearly 3,000 responses from its members, and also found 31 per cent of parents said their child eats a less healthy lunch at school some days.
The researchers at The Food Foundation and TBBT said the results highlight the “postcode lottery” of access to healthy and nutritious food in England.
Earlier this month, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced the extension of Universal Free School Meals for state primary school children across the capital. This programme costs the Greater London Authority approximately £130m a year.
Families across the rest of England face a specific eligibility criteria for Free School Meals by applying through their local authority.
Currently all children at state schools in England are entitled to free school lunches from reception up to Year 2.
Pupils in Year 3 to 6 from households in receipt of eligible benefits are also entitled to free lunches under existing government rules.
However, the Child Poverty Action Group found at least 900,000 children living in poverty in England are missing out on Free School Meals due to the threshold set by government.
The Food Foundation is calling on the government to extend access to Free School Meals to all school children, with children from families receiving Universal Credit prioritised.
Shona Goudie, Policy and Advocacy Manager at The Food Foundation, said: "Lack of action by national policy makers to extend eligibility criteria for school lunches is unfair and will only serve to exacerbate regional inequalities, with schoolchildren outside of London not having access to the same benefits and life chances.
"There are hundreds of thousands of children outside the capital who are living below the poverty line but don’t qualify for a nutritious school lunch.
"As we enter an election year, policymakers across the board should commit to ensuring no child in the England is left to go hungry at lunchtime."
Matthew Knight, Catering Manager, Hillstone School in Birmingham, said: "Whilst we welcome the further extension of FSM to all London primary school children, in Birmingham and the midlands thousands of children will go without a hot nutritious meal at lunch time by virtue of them being in year 3 and not living in London.
"We are hearing stories of hard working families having to choose between paying essential bills or paying for a school meal, we are noticing an increase in packed lunches and as the cost of living crisis really starts to bite after Christmas the quality of contents is deteriorating."