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Two in five low-income households missing out on free healthy food and vitamins

Government falls short of its target as NHS data on number of families signed up to the Healthy Start scheme reveals eligible parents still missing out.

Fruit and veg is seen in an aisle of a UK supermarket.. Copyright: 1000 Words | shutterstock

Fruit and veg is seen in an aisle of a UK supermarket.. Copyright: 1000 Words | shutterstock

After months of campaigning from Sustain, the Food Foundation and other organisations, eligibility and uptake data per local authority has been finally published on the NHS Healthy Start website. Healthy Start Scheme data for January 2023 shows a 63% uptake rate, falling short of the Government's own target of 75% by March 2023. 

Uptake data per local authority area has been missing since 2022. Since the digitisation of the paper vouchers, the scheme has been plagued with issues. The publication of the data is a welcome step to restore some transparency to the scheme and help local health teams to focus resources appropriately to increase uptake.

The NHS Healthy Start scheme helps young families and those who are pregnant to access healthy food, milk and vitamins. Despite its importance as a nutritional safety net, it lacks Government investment in promotion. Based on Sustain's previous research, the estimated loss to families on low incomes across Northern Ireland, Wales and England was almost £70 million in 2021. Areas such as Blackpool are bucking the trend of low uptake and have invested significant resource in 2022 to increase uptake of the scheme through coordinated promotion campaigns and direct support to families applying for the scheme. 

Plans are underway to improve promotion and communication with local areas. The NHSBSA (the agency running the scheme) and the Department of Health and Social Care (who lead on policy regarding the scheme) have made steps to improve promotion and communications around the scheme. NHSBSA is running a Stakeholder Survey (which closes on 10 February) to improve promotional materials and communications available to local areas. There are also plans to better communicate with local health professionals to improve the scheme and share developments.

Sustain will continue to call for increased Government investment in promoting the scheme and support for local resources to coordinate focused community engagement. 

Read DHSC's response to our Open Letter which outlines their plans for this year regarding Healthy Start.

DHSC is also signalling that a consultation on extending the scheme to all families with No Recourse to Public Funds who otherwise meet the criteria for eligibility is on the cards, but there is no mention of a timeline or how local and national stakeholders can contribute to it. We continue pressing for the consultation to be launched as soon as possible.

However, Sustain and other organisations remain disappointed that the Department of Health ministers continue to decline our urgent requests to increase the value of the scheme, which has not been raised since 2021 and continues to shrink in real terms as food prices and cost of living continue to rise. This is especially disheartening as a number of other benefits are set to increase in value from April 2023, but those providing a vital nutritional safety net, such as Healthy Start, are left behind. We continue committed to campaign on the value of the scheme.

Published Friday 3 February 2023

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