A COUNCIL is serving thousands of free dinners to children over the summer holidays.

North Ayrshire Council hopes the scheme will help deprived youngsters who are entitled to free school meals during term-time.

This is the first time a Scottish council has made a move on this scale to try to help families on low incomes over the school holidays.

Child poverty campaigners claim some parents struggle to feed their children properly when schools are shut.

Children in Scotland, the umbrella body for groups working in the children's sector, warned at the weekend that more needed to be done to help families during the six week summer break after research found that four in 10 parents in low-income households will skip meals so that they can feed their children instead. Three quarters of parents earning less than £15,000 said they struggled to feed their children during the holidays.

Across Scotland more than 250,000 children - including all children in P1-3 - are entitled to free school dinners, raising questions about how many of these youngsters continue to receive hot and nutritious food when they are not at school.

North Ayrshire Council has responded to the concerns by becoming the first to open 10 primary schools most days during the holidays for out of school activities. Children from 24 schools are eligible to attend.

The service will provide free meals to children who would normally get them free during term time, with other children paying £2 for a meal.

The scheme is open to all children and will also help ease the burden of childcare for working parents, but also provide pupils with a chance to play with their friends and take part in other holiday activities.

The scheme was first piloted two years ago but has now been rolled out to primary schools across the area. Around 1,200 meals are now being dished up each week, funded by the council.

The vast bulk of Scottish councils have no similar schemes although East Renfrewshire has run "summer camps" which include free meals for eligible children at two of its schools for several years.

Anti poverty campaigners say there is a real problem with "holiday hunger".

The group Children in Scotland claims food banks and community projects are reporting increases in families seeking food for their children in non-term time.

Children in Scotland Chief Executive Jackie Brock said: "Scotland has gone a long way to address hunger for young children during term-time, but we now need to focus on how we can support families during holidays when pressures are most intense.

"Poorer families will find feeding their children, and finding childcare and holiday activities, very difficult and stressful. We must do more to support them.

"Scotland has policies in place on food and wellbeing, as well as Curriculum for Excellence, that make us well-placed to make a change.

"Alongside a coordinated and strategic response to poverty and hunger, we need to look to sustainably funded projects at a local authority or community level that can offer meals out with term-time."

Children in Scotland is currently developing a Families, Food, Futures programme across three council areas.

It will target schools to offer a free and nutritious meal as part of a wider range of activities for children and their families.

The programme will be based in schools with high deprivation levels but provision will be available to all in the school.