News Food Poverty

Thousands of women and children miss out on healthy food scheme in 2018

As seen in an article in the Huffington Post today, charities and health groups have warned Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock that low-income women and children in over 130,000 households are missing out on £28.6m of free fruit, vegetables and milk due to poor promotion of the Healthy Start voucher scheme.


  • Coalition of charities and health bodies warn the government that families have missed out on more than £28m of healthy food
  • They call on the government to boost promotion of the Healthy Start scheme for low income families
  • Read the full joint open letter

The coalition of 26 charities and healthy bodies includes Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming (2), the Royal Society for Public Health, Royal College of Midwives and the Trussell Trust. They are calling on the Government to boost promotion of the Healthy Start voucher scheme, which can be worth up to £900 per child over the first four years of life (3).

The vouchers adds at least £3.10 to a family shop per child each week, which could buy two litres of semi-skimmed milk, 1kg carrots, 900g frozen peas and 4 apples at a typical discount supermarket. Over the first four years of a child’s life this is equivalent to 1,090 pints of milk, 1,100 apples, 218kg of carrots and 143kg of peas.

Kath Dalmeny, Chief Executive of Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming, said “The government is missing a trick. This money has been set aside to support low income and young families, but the Healthy Start voucher scheme for fruit, vegetables and milk is not being properly managed or promoted. Over 4 million children are living in households who sometimes run out of money for essentials such as food – these vouchers can help keep good food on the table.”

Shirley Cramer, CBE, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Public Health, said “Having access to nutritious food required for healthy development is a right of every child. The Healthy Start scheme must be fully utilised, as it has great potential to help combat the rising rates of childhood obesity. We know that healthy food is three times more expensive than unhealthy food; the scheme can help those at the greatest disadvantage in the most deprived areas. It establishes eating patterns, forms healthy habits for life and shows children what food is good for them. We must equip parents to safeguard the health of their children and the next generation.”

However in 2018, pregnant women and children missed out on an estimated £28.6 million worth of vouchers in England and Wales (4), representing a missed opportunity by government to help families afford to heed their young families and also to encourage healthy eating habits that could have lifelong benefits.

Estimated unclaimed Healthy Start vouchers in 2018 by region
(England and Wales) (Data source: Healthy Start Issuing Unit)


East Midlands


East of England




North East


North West


South East


South West




West Midlands


Yorkshire & Humber




The open letter calls on the Government to fund a programme to ensure that midwives, health visitors, GPs and other relevant staff in health, social care and early years settings actively help all eligible pregnant women and new parents claim their Heathy Start vouchers. The charities and health groups suggest that this programme could be funded from the estimated £28.6 million of Healthy Start vouchers that went unclaimed last year.

The letter also asks the Government to confirm the date for a consultation on Healthy Start, which was committed to by the Department of Health and Social Care last June in Chapter 2 of Childhood Obesity: a plan for action.

The Sustain food and farming alliance, which coordinated the open letter, is encouraging people to write to their MP about Healthy Start to make sure all children have access to fresh fruit and vegetables for a healthy start in life.

Average take-up of the vouchers in England and Wales was only 64% in 2018, or approximately 135,000 households missing out, with no government funds dedicated to supporting local health service providers to promote the scheme. A map of current take-up rates in England and Wales is publicly available and updated monthly by the Department of Health.


For press enquiries contact Maddie Guerlain at or 02035596777 or 07904606916.


  1. Healthy Start is a means-tested scheme available in England, Wales and Northern Ireland for all women who are pregnant under the ages of 18, as well as pregnant women and their children four years or younger who are on a low-income meeting certain eligibility criteria. Pregnant women and children over one and under four years old receive one £3.10 voucher per week. Children under one year old can get two £3.10 vouchers (£6.20) per week.
  2. Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming coordinates a number of projects related to food poverty and healthy eating, including
    • Food Power, which supports a network of over 50 local multi-sector partnerships working to tackle the root causes of food poverty, as part of a four-year programme run in partnership by Sustain and Church Action on Poverty and funded by the Big Lottery Fund.
    • The Children’s Food Campaign , which advocates for better food and food teaching for children in schools, protection of children from junk food marketing and clear food labelling that can be understood by everyone, including children.
    • Veg Cities, which works to increase the availability and consumption of vegetables, being run as a feature campaign of Sustainable Food Cities, led by Sustain in partnership with the wider Peas Please initiative and funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.
    • Right to Food, which advocates for the realisation of the Right to Food in UK law to ensure that everyone can enjoy safe, nutritious and sustainable food. This project is a collaboration between Nourish Scotland, Just Fair, the Institute of Health and Society at the University of Newcastle and is supported by the Baring Foundation.
    • London Food Poverty Campaign ,which encourages London boroughs to address food poverty beyond the food bank, including promoting Healthy Start, championing school holiday food provision, highlighting good practice in meals on wheels provision and supporting areas to develop food poverty action plans. This project is supported by the Trust for London.
  3. Calculation based on a woman who claims the vouchers from confirmation of pregnancy at 10 weeks (30 weeks at £3.10 per week) to full term, two vouchers for an infant from 0-1 year (52 weeks at £6.20 per week) and one voucher until the child’s fourth birthday (156 weeks at £3.10 per week).
  4. Figure based on data from Healthy Start Issuing Unit (HSIU) for England and Wales, who reported in July 2018 that the average number of vouchers issued per beneficiary is 1.425, or £4.42 per household per week. Over 52 weeks in 2018, with an average of 64% voucher uptake, the estimated shortfall to eligible beneficiaries is £28,566,221. Scotland is transitioning to a different scheme (see below) and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is responsible for Healthy Start in Northern Ireland.
  5. Responsibility for Healthy Start has been devolved to the Scottish Government, who are planning to launch a reformed version of the scheme in summer 2019 called Best Start Foods. This will include a digital smart card to replace the paper vouchers, an increase in the value of the vouchers up to £4.25 and an expanded list of eligible foods to purchase, including pulses and eggs.


Published Saturday 1 June 2019

Food Poverty: Millions of people in the UK struggle to get enough to eat. We’re working to change that through people-powered projects and campaigns that tackle the root causes of food poverty and ensure everyone has dignified access to healthy, affordable food.

Latest related news

Support our work

Your donation will help communities identify ways to alleviate food poverty and increase access to healthy food.


The Green House
244-254 Cambridge Heath Road
London E2 9DA

020 3559 6777

Sustain advocates food and agriculture policies and practices that enhance the health and welfare of people and animals, improve the working and living environment, promote equity and enrich society and culture.

© Sustain 2024
Registered charity (no. 1018643)
Data privacy & cookies