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Families miss out on an estimated £68 million in free food as Gov miss Healthy Start target

Sustain calculates that over 200,000 low-income families with young children and pregnant women are losing out on Healthy Start payments toward free fruit, veg, milk and vitamins in 2023 with 1/3 of all eligible households not signed up. Regional analysis shows that the LAs with the biggest losses are Birmingham (£1.9m), Manchester (£1m) and Leeds (£1m). The greater London region missed out on almost £12 million in missed benefits. The North West lost £9.3m and South East £8m.

A woman with baby shopping for fruit. Copyright: Dmitry Kalinovsky | Shutterstock

A woman with baby shopping for fruit. Copyright: Dmitry Kalinovsky | Shutterstock

Fresh analysis released today by food charity Sustain shows that 207,000 families across England, Wales and Northern Ireland missed out on a potential £68 million in Healthy Start Scheme payments in the last year. A map plotting scheme uptake rates and estimated losses per region and local authority shows that London and the North West region missed out the most.

Birmingham has been worst hit, with losses to low income families around £1.9 million in 2023. But populous cities with high numbers of eligible families – Manchester and Leeds – are set to lose out over £1 million each. The London Borough of Newham has big losses in proportion to its relative size, with £723k going unclaimed due to a low uptake rate of 53%.

The Government had hoped to reach 75% of eligible families by the end of March, but missed that target, reaching only 366,000, or 64%.

The Healthy Start scheme provides fruit, vegetables, vitamins and milk for young families on low incomes, and could have helped many more with the current cost of living crisis. According to the Office of National Statistics, UK food prices are rising at the fastest rate in over 40 year, with inflation now almost 17%.  

Furthermore, latest research from the Food Foundation shows that the number of households where children are experiencing food insecurity has nearly doubled in the past year. An estimated 3.7 million children are at risk of going hungry.   

Vera Zakharov, Local Action Coordinator at Sustain, said,

It is unacceptable that over 207,000 families are missing out on £68 million of free fruit, veg and milk at a time when food prices continue to soar. Research shows families with young children are most at risk of food insecurity, and far too many are not even aware that they can access this support. Government must do all it can to promote Healthy Start properly, increase payments in line with inflation, and work toward auto-enrolment to avoid more families missing out.

According to Food Foundation data, families with babies and young children are especially at risk of food insecurity, with 27.3% of households with children under 4 struggling to afford food

Zoe McIntyre, Children’s Food Advocacy Manager at the Food Foundation, said,

It’s truly heart-breaking that more than 200,000 families with very young children are missing out on vital funds that could relieve them of some of the worry and anguish of food insecurity and rising food bills. It also begs the question – where do the millions of unretrieved pounds set aside for these families go? Government needs to do what’s right and properly invest in Healthy Start starting with a comprehensive communications campaign to make sure these families so longer miss out on healthy food, milk and vitamins they are entitled to.

Yet many families are not claiming, either because of complications in the application process, or simply because they are unaware they are eligible. Those that do claim are finding the value of Healthy Start outpaced by inflation, with payments no longer able to cover the cost of infant formula according to analysis by First Steps Nutrition Trust, and many fruit and vegetable lines up to 25% more expensive in the wake of recent shortages. 

South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck, who plans to bring forward a Parliamentary Bill on Healthy Start in June, said:

The North East has some of the highest levels of poverty in England, which is why we need the Healthy Start Scheme to live up to its potential. Last year, South Tyneside families lost out on more than £200,000 of free fruit, vegetables and milk - some of them won’t even know they’re entitled to it. That’s why I am introducing a Bill in Parliament to push for automatic enrolment for Healthy Start to ensure no eligible family misses out. In the last year we’ve seen the highest food price rises since the 70s – which is why I’m also calling for the value of the vouchers to rise in line with inflation.

Local authorities and food partnerships across the country have stepped up efforts to promote the scheme , but are facing difficulties associated with squeezed public health budgets and changing demographics. 

Sustain and a coalition of organisations including the Food Foundation, First Steps Nutrition Trust and others, are calling on policy makers to:

  • address the technical challenges that are preventing auto-enrolment of all eligible families on Universal Credit
  • invest £5 million in a communications campaign to promote the scheme widely
  • increase the value of Healthy Start in line with inflation immediately
  • expand eligibility to all families on Universal Credit and equivalent benefits with children under five years old
  • expand eligibility to families with young children with No Recourse to Public Funds who are otherwise on very low incomes.

Read the Healthy Start Working Group's policy position statement in full here.

The Sustain analysis shows that families living in the same region as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (Yorkshire & Humber) missed out on £6.4 million and those in Health Secretary Steve Barclay’s region (East of England) missed £6.2 million. Nearly £12 million went unclaimed in London, the English region worst hit by low uptake rates. And Northern Ireland, though smaller in population, suffers the worst uptake rates, with over 46% of eligible families missing out.

Table showing estimated losses by nation and region
Region/Nation   % Uptake Households not claiming Total money unclaimed
East Midlands 63.69 15685 5171030.80
East of England 62.39 18780 6191390.40
London 58.04 36282 11961449.76
North East 70.88 8795 2899535.60
North West 65.18 28160 9283788.80
South East 63.04 24301 8011553.68
South West 63.86 13796 4548265.28
West Midlands 66.11 22891 7546704.88
Yorks & Humber 67.27 19458 6414913.44
England Total 63.93 188148 62028632.64
Wales 68.10 9826 3239435.68
Northern Ireland 53.60 9757 3216687.76
Total 63.77 207731 68484756.08


The Healthy Start Scheme was designed as a nutritional safety net for pregnant mothers, babies and children under 4 experiencing food insecurity, with weekly payments of £4.25 per week per eligible individual (£8.50 for infants under 1) for spending on fresh, frozen or tinned fruit and vegetables, pulses, cow's milk or first infant formula, as well as free multivitamins for both pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and infants and children under 4. Scotland’s Best Start Foods scheme is run separately, and has uptake rates of 77% as of 2021 and pays £4.95/£9.90 per week.

Parents on Universal Credit who are at least 10 weeks pregnant or have at least one child under 4 years old can apply if their monthly take home pay is £408 or less from employment. Families receiving Child Tax Credit earning £16,190 or less a year can also apply if they don’t also receive Working Tax Credit. The Healthy Start Card can also be used to collect free multivitamins for pregnant and breastfeeding mums, and vitamin drops for children under 4 not on first infant formula.

Estimates of money lost in unclaimed payments were calculated using an average weekly payment of £6.34, obtained via NHS Business Services Authority, multiplied by the number of eligible households not claiming in March 2023, available on the NHS Healthy Start website, by 52 weeks.

Published Wednesday 19 April 2023

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