More than half of secondary school children are fed poor quality meals as canteens pass off EU meat as British and fried food as baked, according to a new study by the Soil Association.
For the first time since school dinners improved in the wake of Jamie Oliver's campaign in 2005, standards have slipped according to caterers across the country.
The report estimates that at least 60 per cent of secondary schools are failing to meet legal standards, with many offering meals lacking in vegetables and serving oversized sugary puddings and unhealthy snacks.
Campaigners have called on the Government to better monitor school food standards and sanction schools which serve unhealthy meals.
The researchers spoke to 30 caterers across an 18-month period, including 14 in autumn 2019.
Most caterers said they were aware of schools and caterers that were non-compliant with legal School Food Standards.
“We have seen menus that are clearly not compliant,” one caterer said, “including menus with too many oily and processed foods.They aren’t serving a portion of vegetables with every meal.”
Other caterers told the report that schools are offering processed meat every day for breakfast and sugary cakes and tray bakes daily for morning break as well as lunchtime. Other schools served pizza and cakes for lunch instead of healthy, balanced meals.
Another caterer said: “We know a school just serving pizza and cakes for the children at lunchtime.”
A growing number of caterers are ‘trading down’ to lower quality ingredients. “We know a caterer serving lower quality meats from the EU and passing it off as British mince in their spaghetti Bolognese,” one caterer said.
Rob Percival, the head of policy at the Soil Association, said that the country has reached a "tipping point" in school dinner quality.
He explained: "It's definitely an increasing issue, we've seen this picture across the last ten years of steady improvements in school foods, ever since Jamie Oliver's programme really.
"But just in the last two years or so we have approached a tipping point. There are a real cocktail of pressures that caterers are facing. We are seeing now this decline in quality in school food standards.
"Caterers have started taking some healthier items off the menu as there have been price spikes in fruit, salmon and so on.
"The budget for school meals hasn't risen in line with inflation and we have seen a decline in quality of ingredients. There's been rising overhead costs, staff costs, it's all added up to a situation where caterers are telling us where other caterers are cutting corners".
He said there is "no monitoring from the government and there is no incentive to meet the standards."
The report recommends that the government communicates better with schools to "remind them that standards exist and they have responsibilities" and that schools which are found not to comply are sanctioned.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “All children should have access to healthy and nutritious meals, which is why the school food standards were introduced. School governors have a responsibility to make sure their school complies with these and should raise any concerns with the headteacher and the senior leadership team.
“We are providing 1.3 million disadvantaged pupils with a free school meal, and a further 1.4 million infant pupils benefit from our Universal Infant Free School Meal programme.”