HIGH school pupils across West Dunbartonshire are “voting with their feet” to abandon school meals -causing a “collapse” in council income.

The rise of youngsters getting lunches outwith their schools was blamed on Scottish Government rules forcing healthy food and drink options on menus and in vending machines.

But prices also jumped by 8.9 per cent in April as part of a council-wide assessment of all fees. The SNP told the educational services committee that was a one-off evaluation of prices.

Councillors were told West Dunbartonshire now has the “highest cost” school meals to pupils across all of Scotland at £2.45 a day.

Officials later clarified that the area was joint 11th most expensive for secondaries and second highest for primaries.

Between paid meal income and vending machine income, the council has lost £181,000 from the secondary school budget of more than £26million.

The committee was considering the latest update last week on their budget of £96.5m – including a comparatively minuscule total overspend of £73,000.

Joe Reilly, business unit finance partner for education, told councillors the main reason for the budget variance in secondary schools was the “collapse in school meals income”.

He said: “Our school meals income in secondary in particular ... they can vote with their feet a bit more. We are now the highest cost local authority in Scotland for school meals and I think that’s taken its toll.”

Mr Reilly said there have been four per cent increases in meal prices each year recently and the overall trend was a decline.

But he said: “Last March when we increasing school meal prices by 9.5 per cent or something like that and I have noticed there has been a steep fall this year, probably related to the extent of our increase from April 2019.”

The council later clarified that the increase was actually 8.9 per cent.

READ MORE: Scotland to introduce new healthy eating regulations on school meals

Councillor Caroline McAllister replied: “But there’s no real data to evidence that. I understand there was disparity last year as well. Is it the cost or is it what we are offering?”

Mr Reilly said it was both. : “I think it’s a mixture of both – cost and what’s on offer.”

Opposition councillors raised concerns about the “inflation-busting” increases driving youngsters away.

Chairwoman Karen Conaghan pointed out more people were entitled to free school meals.

In March, the council increased the threshold for households qualifying for free school meals, at a cost of £110,000. That would have, in turn, impacted on income but there were no details available in the meeting as to how much of a difference that made.

Cllr Conaghan added: “I think part of it as well, from listening to young people, is what’s in the vending machines is not what they want to buy. “And that is down to the restrictions actually placed on us about of what we’re allowed to sell to young people in terms of healthy things.“Teenagers like to go buy fizzy drinks and chips – let’s be honest. And what they have access to in schools is not that because we’re trying to encourage them to a better and healthier lifestyle.”

After the meeting, a council spokeswoman said: “Our two-course school meals are healthy, prepared freshly each day and meet the Scottish Government’s nutritional requirements for food and drink in schools.

“At £2.45, our meals represent value for money for all pupils and this price is significantly lower than the cost of providing the service.”

“We have also lowered the point at which children are eligible for free school meals, meaning 80 per cent of school meals received in primary schools and 50 per cent in secondary schools are provided free of charge.”