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Boosting the value of Healthy Start vouchers can help low-income families improve their diets

Research by IGD and University of Leeds found that Sainsbury’s £2 top up to Healthy Start vouchers during 2021 led to a change in behaviour of shoppers, with more fruit and vegetables and fewer discretionary items purchased, even after the financial incentives stopped.

Shopping vegetables. Credit: Philip Myrtorp unsplash

Shopping vegetables. Credit: Philip Myrtorp unsplash

Nutrition during pregnancy and early years directly impacts long-term health. Healthy Start is a government food assistance programme for low-income families. It provides financial support to low-income families and pregnant women for fruit, vegetables, pulses, milk or infant formula.

Sustain and the Food Foundation are calling for the Healthy Start scheme to be expanded to more families, and for an increase in the value of vouchers.

What happened in the trial?

To tackle increasing financial pressure, between February and August 2021 Sainsbury’s offered customers a £2 top-up voucher each time they used a government Healthy Start voucher in the supermarket. Vouchers could be printed in any of Sainsbury’s 800 supermarkets but not in convenience stores or online .The vouchers were redeemable in any Sainsburys store against fresh, canned and frozen fruit and vegetables. Researchers investigated how these top-ups impacted the shopping habits of 1,383 regular shoppers across four UK regions who used Healthy Start Voucher top-ups.


Key findings

1. When using top-up vouchers, shopping habits shifted positively towards the Eatwell Guide

Shopping habits shifted positively towards the Eatwell Guide with fewer discretionary purchases and a higher intake of fruit and vegetables. On average these baskets contained: 13 extra portions of fruits and vegetables, 12% more fresh fruit, fewer composite dishes, fewer discretionary products, less protein rich food e.g. meat.

2. Healthier habits continued when not using the vouchers and after the trial finished

During the intervention period there was a positive impact on the behaviour of engaged shoppers, even on the occasions they were not using a top-up voucher. Over six months, these shoppers purchased: more fruits and vegetables fewer discretionary items fewer protein rich foods.  This trend cannot necessarily be attributed to the intervention as protein has been steadily declining for some time. A small but significant change in behaviour was measured for the three months after the trial.

3. There is an opportunity to encourage use of the top-up scheme

During the trial period almost 38,000 top-up vouchers were used by Sainsbury’s customers nationwide. This was 17% of all vouchers printed, higher than typical redemption rates of other types of printed vouchers at the time.

Vouchers were used more frequently in stores in the most deprived areas, suggesting that those who needed support most were accessing it more often.

Digitisation of the Healthy Start may help further as paper vouchers are known to have a poor redemption rate and produce stigma.

4. Sainsbury's are now offering £2 additional value on Healthy Start vouchers again

On 10 October 2022, Sainsbury's announced the reintroduction of their £2 top-up to Healthy Start vouchers. Anyone using the new Healthy Start card can receive an additional £2 printed coupon each week for the purchase of fresh, frozen or tinned fruit and vegetables in their next shop. The top-up scheme will run until 11 April 2023.

Sustain and Food Foundation encourage all retailers to consider adding further value to Healthy Start, as well as calling on Government to increase the value of the scheme in light of rising food prices, and to expand the scheme to more families. 

Read the full report and recommendations for retailers on the IGD website

Published Thursday 13 October 2022

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