With England poised to introduce lunches for every infant child, the North is planning to open up its own meals scheme to 15,000 more pupils in post-primary schools.
In Northern Ireland, free school meals are usually provided to children whose parents receive benefits or whose family income is less than £16,190.
Of the 80,000 pupils entitled to free school meals in 2012/13, just 27,701 were at post-primary schools. Only about 19 per cent of all secondary-age students in the North are entitled.
At present, primary school children whose parents are entitled to working tax credits receive meals, although they lose the entitlement when they transfer to secondary school.
However, the Department of Education plans to extend this to post-primary from September 2014, enabling an additional 15,000 students to benefit.
In addition, the Northern Ireland Assembly backed a motion calling on education minister John O’Dowd to explore ways to extend access to free dinners to more young people.
The assembly was told that the stigma of poverty might be preventing some parents from claiming for their children.
Almost one in five pupils who are eligible for free school meals do not avail of them, the minister says.
“I believe that free school meals are educationally beneficial to the young people who require them. I believe that they are targeted at the right people,” Mr O’Dowd said.
“I accept that, across all communities, there are people who do not claim free schools meals, and I encourage them to do so.
“I will look at how we brand and promote these things, and I will also look at how we can broaden the criteria to bring more people under the safety net of the free school meal entitlement.”