Government must act faster to ensure the youngest children in low-income families can also access healthy food, says coalition of 35 organisations in open letter to health minister Jo Churchill MP.
Healthy Start vouchers (1) for low-income families need to be available online, a group of health, food and poverty organisations told ministers today. In an open letter to health minister Jo Churchill, the coalition, led by food and farming alliance Sustain (2) and including the Royal College of Midwives, The Women’s Institute and British Dietetic Association,, called on government to speed up development of a modern online application service, rather than relying solely on outdated paper application forms.
The Government’s decision last week to extend free school meal vouchers through the summer holidays is welcome. However, childhood food insecurity doesn’t begin at school age – families on a low income need support during crucial early childhood development years. This is precisely what Healthy Start vouchers bring to the table by supporting pregnant women and children up to four years old, and yet 47% of families missed out on them last year (3).
The campaigners also say the scheme helps families get enough vitamin D, which government advises is critical during periods of prolonged lockdown. With predictions of a second wave of coronavirus later in the year, getting the form online is vital to keeping families healthy.
The Healthy Start scheme provides young and low-income pregnant women and low-income families with young children vouchers to purchase vegetables, fruit, milk and infant formula, which can be worth up to £900 per child (4). However, the only way to apply is via a paper application form that needs to be completed and returned by post – there is no way to apply online. Typically, community and health services help families to access and complete the paper application, but families' contact with them has been severely diminished during the Covid-19 outbreak and many do not have printers at home.
The letter calls on government to accelerate this modernisation programme in order to ensure vulnerable families can afford the food they need, particularly during the Covid-19 outbreak. While initial steps have been taken to digitise aspects of the scheme over the last year, paper applications will continue to be the only way for the majority of eligible families to apply until at least the end of 2020.
Accelerating the online system would also help to prepare for a likely swell in applications as more people facing economic hardship will be eligible for the scheme. With an additional 1.8 million new Universal Credit claimants since lockdown, health officials could see a significant increase in applicants. Processing paper applications by hand is inefficient and labour intensive at a time when resources need to be deployed effectively within the NHS.
Moreover, take up of the scheme has been notoriously low and declining for many years, despite the benefits for families who do use the scheme. Modernising the application process will help more families quickly claim this vital benefit. In 2018, it was estimated that thousands of families missed out on £28.6 million worth of vouchers (5). In 2019, this was estimated to have increased to over £46 million as only 53% of eligible families accessed the vouchers.
“Ensuring pregnant women and young children have access to the nutritional safety net that Healthy Start vouchers provide is more important now than ever. The number of new claimants for benefits continues to grow and so government must invest in developing technology that matches this pace of growth, both for the sake of families and their health, as well as for the efficiency of the NHS and its resources.” Kath Dalmeny, Chief Executive, Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming
“It is devastating that 5 million people in the UK living in households with children have experienced food insecurity since the lockdown started. The Healthy Start voucher scheme is an important initiative that can help address this, but access is limited by the fact that it’s not currently possible to apply online. This needs to change as quickly as possible to ensure vulnerable families can afford the food they need, which is why we are calling on the Government to accelerate the modernisation programme.” Lynne Stubbings, Chair of The Women’s Institute
“Healthy Start vouchers provide much needed nutritional support to mothers on low income. Sadly these are not being claimed by many of those entitled to receive them. Placing the vouchers online will be a simple but important way of making them more accessible and increasing take up rates" Gill Walton, Chief Executive, The Royal College of Midwives
“Dietitians see the consequences of health inequalities and food poverty on families in their work every day. The Healthy Start voucher scheme is an important way to address some of these issues and improve children’s health outcomes. Anything that makes it easier for people to access this welcome benefit should be implemented quickly, and promoted widely, including with further investment to raise the value of these vouchers.” Caroline Bovey RD, Chair of the British Dietetic Association
Food Poverty: Over 8 million people in the UK struggle to get enough to eat. Sustain is working with communities, third-sector organisations, local authorities and government, aiming to make sure everyone can eat well.
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