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Low income families may miss out on £58m in food support due to Healthy Start scheme problems

Nearly £58 million in government nutritional support for families could go unclaimed this year due to inefficiencies in the Healthy Start scheme. Over a third of babies, young children and pregnant people are missing out on the support they're entitled to.

Credit: Odua Images | shutterstock

Credit: Odua Images | shutterstock

New analysis published today by Sustain estimates the value of unclaimed Healthy Start payments to be an estimated £57,914,354 a year across England, Northern Ireland and Wales. Sustain is calling on the government to move to an auto-enrolment system to ensure all eligible families benefit. 

Despite digitisation of the Healthy Start scheme that saw uptake rates increase from 50%, the number of individuals across the country remains persistently low at 62.4% for April 2024. The current system for enrolment relies on eligible families to opt-in once they are made aware of the scheme. However, due to lack of awareness of eligibility more than 220,000 infants, young children and pregnant people in England, Northern Ireland and Wales are missing out on this much-needed scheme.

A map, published by Sustain, segments uptake rates and shortfall by local authority and serves to highlight the postcode lottery of uptake to the Healthy Start scheme. Birmingham shows the largest shortfall of £1,634,488.44, while the London Borough of Newham has an uptake rate of 50% resulting in a loss of £636,898.60 to families. The London region is the worst hit, with nearly £10 million missed out by families, followed by the North West region, where over £7.8 million is going unclaimed.

The Healthy Start scheme provides a vital nutritional safety net to eligible pregnant people and parents of young children on low incomes. These payments can buy fruit, vegetables, pulses, milk, first infant formula and vitamins. Infants under the age of one are entitled to a weekly payment of £8.50, while pregnant people and children under four are entitled to £4.25. 

A similar scheme run separately in Scotland under the name Best Start Foods has a 92% uptake rate. Payments are also higher at £5.30 per week for pregnant people and children aged one to three, and £10.60 per week for infants under one.

Together with the Food Foundation and other organisations advocating improvements to the Healthy Start scheme, Sustain is calling on Government policy-makers to:

  • move toward auto-enrolment onto the scheme 
  • increase the value of Healthy Start payments in line with inflation
  • expand eligibility to all families on Universal Credit, to mirror the Best Start Foods Scheme
  • expand eligibility to all families with young children with No Recourse to Public Funds who are on very low incomes.

Vera Zakharov, Sustainable Food Places Local Action Coordinator at Sustain, says:

'The Healthy Start Scheme is not meeting its full potential with over a third of eligible individuals from low income households missing out. Auto-enrolment to the scheme is the best and fairest way to ensure every eligible baby, young child and pregnant person benefits.

Furthermore, Healthy Start must follow Scotland’s Best Start Foods scheme and increase the value of payments in line with inflation, as well as removing the unacceptably low income thresholds that unfairly disqualify many families facing sharp food insecurity.'

Emma Lewell-Buck, MP for South Shields, says:

'Too many families are missing out on the nutritional safety net provided by Healthy Start and setting the stage for a lifetime of good health. In my constituency of South Shields, families are missing out on an estimated £169,000 in support a year.

Data sharing protocols between the Department of Work and Pensions and Department of Health and Social Care should be put in place to identify all people entitled to Healthy Start payments and an ‘opt-out’ rather than ‘opt-in’ scheme should be put in place.'


Read our Healthy Start Parliamentary Briefing

Healthy Start map:

Check how much uptake and shortfall there is in your local area.

Healthy Start map

Published Wednesday 22 May 2024

Sustainable Food Places: The Sustainable Food Places Network helps people and places share challenges, explore practical solutions and develop best practice on key food issues, so if you are working to drive positive food change or are interested in developing a programme, please do get in touch.

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