News / Sustainable Food Places

Families lose out on almost £70 million of free food, as cost of living fears grow

Fresh analysis from Sustain shows that families in England, Wales and Northern Ireland missed out on almost £70 million of free healthy food in 2021, just as experts warn of an inflation spike that could reach over 10% for lower income households.

According to the Resolution Foundation, the poorest tenth of households spend twice the share of their family income households on food and energy bills as compared to the richest tenth, so the second inflation spike anticipated in autumn 2022 could reach over 10% for these families.

The Sustain analysis shows that families in living in the same region as Chancellor Rishi Sunak missed out on £6.5 million and those in Health Secretary Sajid Javid’s region (West Midlands) missed £7.7 million. More than £11.7 million went unclaimed in London.

Earlier this month, a large coalition of charities, led by Sustain and The Food Foundation, and including Royal College of Midwives and Royal Society of Public Health, sent a letter to Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Sajid Javid pointing out problems with the digital Healthy Start cards and asking him to extend the paper vouchers while the digital scheme is fixed.

Sustain has calculated how much money is estimated to be lost out in each local authority. Cities like Leeds, Bradford, Liverpool and Manchester, with their high numbers of residents and potential beneficiaries, lost out on almost approximately £800,000 each. Residents in Birmingham appear to have fared particularly badly, losing out on a potential £1.8 million.  

The fresh figures come as questions arise over digitisation of the Healthy Start scheme. Earlier this month it emerged that thousands of families could be at risk of losing out as they don't appear to have received their digital card yet. The last paper voucher will be issued at the end of March.

Sofia Parente, campaigner at Sustain said: “Hundreds of thousands of families missed out on free milk, fruit and vegetables last year. Almost £70 million went unclaimed. With food prices spiking, it’s even more important that families know this benefit exists and to come forward to claim it. But the Government must prioritise fixing the digital Healthy Start cards. There have been multiple problems, with eligible families being rejected, cards not turning up or functioning at tills and calls to the helpline going unanswered. We are in a cost of living crisis and families need this benefit.”

Zoe McIntyre, Project Manager at the Food Foundation said: “Far too many households are already experiencing food insecurity and we have strong indication that rising inflation and increases in taxes will put an even bigger burden on families already struggling to afford a healthy diet. So it’s now critically important that Government shows proper leadership and sorts out the problems of Healthy Start, so the thousands of eligible families can access the benefit they are entitled to. Proper management of the scheme will ensure targeted support reaches low-income households and helps them to feed their families well, but right now Healthy Start is under-funded, poorly communicated and the chaotic handling of digitisation is putting up unnecessary barriers to access.“

The Healthy Start Facebook page has been flooded with complaints about the digitised scheme: the online application form is rejecting eligible families, cards are difficult to activate, the helpline is not working and can cost up to 55p/min for those not on a call plan.

Pregnant women and those with children under four can apply for the benefit which gives them £4.25 a week to spend on fruit, vegetables and milk and those with a baby under one get £8.50 a week.

Healthy Start: Estimated loss to families in 2021

In 2021, on average only 54% of eligible families were receiving Healthy Start vouchers, which help young children and pregnant women buy fruit, vegetables, milk and infant formula. As a result, hundreds of thousands missed out on this much-needed scheme - a huge loss to families struggling to cover the rising cost of living.

In this map we highlight the estimated cash shortfall for families in each Local Authority, as well as the average take up in each area during 2021.

> £600,000 shortfall

£450,000 - £600,000

£300,000 - £450,000

£150,000 - £300,000

£0 - £150,000

No data

> 60% take up

55% - 60%

50% - 55%

45% - 50%

0% - 45%

No data

Estimated cash shortfall in 2021

East Midlands £5,117,027.36
East of England £6,581,147.44
London £11,769,611.20
North East £3,077,267.96
North West £9,462,443.52
South East £8,585,889.04
South West £4,730,459.24
West Midlands £7,707,505.28
Yorkshire & Humber £6,505,891.20
England £63,537,601.48
Wales £3,421,851.08
Belfast Health Trust £560,068.52
Northern Health Trust £542,939.80
South Eastern Health Trust £434,837.12
Southern Health Trust £542,142.68
Western Health Trust £455,176.72
Northern Ireland £2,535,164.84
England, Wales and Northern Ireland £69,494,617.40

Note: Local Authority average take up of Healthy Start paper vouchers is published by NHS Business Services Authority. Cash shortfall is estimated by multiplying the number of beneficiaries missing out each year by the value of the voucher over the course of a year.

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Published 31 Mar 2022

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