Guest Blog: Healthy Start – More Important than Ever as the Cost of Living Soars

Guest Blog: Healthy Start – More Important than Ever as the Cost of Living Soars

In our latest guest blog, we hear from Zoe McIntyre of the Food Foundation and Sofia Parente of Sustain, to find out why Healthy Start vouchers are more important than ever, amid the concerns about the stark rise in cost of living. 

As the cost-of-living crisis intensifies, we are seeing millions of families in Britain struggling to put food on the table, forcing many to opt for the cheapest calories which are typically the least healthy. This makes healthy eating programmes like Healthy Start even more important to ensure pregnant women and young children get the nutrition they need.

The Government’s Healthy Start scheme offers low-income pregnant women and those with a child under four help to buy healthy food and milk in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. As a targeted nutritional safety net, it’s a highly efficient way to reach those who are most in need of support at a time when families are increasingly struggling to put food on the table. New data from The Food Foundation released this month showed a sharp increase in the proportion of households with children experiencing food insecurity in the past month at 17.2% up from 12.1% in January 2022.

Healthy Start has recently undergone a makeover; switching from paper vouchers to a digital card with the intention to improve ease of use and reduce stigma. The transition caused a number of issues – leading to more than 155 frontline groups writing to the Department of Health to raise their concerns. Thankfully, many of these have now been resolved, including a new phone line for card activations being created and glitches in online applications being fixed.

So, with digitisation now complete and food prices soaring, it’s time for urgent investment in improving and expanding Healthy Start. Here we explore what needs to be done and why.


Increasing Uptake and Awareness  

For all families to benefit from this scheme, a concerted effort is needed to increase take-up. When Covid hit, uptake rates dropped as low as 44 per cent in England – leading to the likes of Marcus Rashford to campaign for improvements. He and The Food Foundation worked with seven retailers to promote and add value to the scheme with add-ons like free fruit and vegetables, while frontline organisations up and down the country worked tirelessly to help promote it. As a result, uptake did increase but by September 2021 around 220,000 eligible families across the UK were still missing out.

It’s encouraging to learn that 345,000 successful applications have been made to the digitisation scheme, with over 107,000 of these new to Healthy Start. But this leaves uptake still hovering at around 65%. So far, only beneficiaries previously signed up to the paper vouchers have been targeted by Government communications. A much wider promotion of the scheme is needed to reach those who have not yet signed up. The National Food Strategy recommended the Government to launch a £5 million communications campaign to promote its own scheme and we hope to see this responded to in the Government’s soon-to-come White Paper.

If low uptake is not solved, it’s perhaps time to look at automatic enrolment for all those that meet the eligibility criteria for Healthy Start. Organisations like Feeding Britain are advocating for this while the Local Government Association has recently expressed support for autoenrollment for Free School Meals.

Sadly, the new digital card for Healthy Start no longer allows retailers to add additional value. Instead, retailers are coming up with innovative ways to champion Healthy Start – such as Iceland launching a promotion campaign on their milk bottles. Marcus Rashford and Tom Kerridge continue to promote Healthy Start via their online cookery school Full Time. But the Government needs to problem-solve with industry to overcome barriers to adding value and make sure retailers’ willingness to support Healthy Start doesn’t go to waste.


Improving Access to the Scheme

Healthy Start is a means-tested scheme only available to a very small number of families – those that earn less than £408 per week. This means a huge number of families facing food insecurity won’t be able to benefit. The National Food Strategy recommends for the earning threshold to be raised – Part 1 called for this to be in line with Universal Credit (or equivalent benefits) meaning 1 million babies and young children would be eligible.

Barriers to accessing the scheme remain for children from households on  No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF). In 2021, Healthy Start was provisionally extended to this group following a successful legal challenge to expand eligibility to British children under the age of four. A consultation on broadening this to all children on NRPF promised by the Government is now well overdue. Very few families qualify under the provisional extension was agreed, of the 700 requests for application forms, only 9 were deemed to fulfil the eligibility criteria. This is despite Free School Meals now being available to children on NRPF. So why not Healthy Start?

Responding to the Cost of Living

In April 2021, we welcomed Healthy Start payments increasing from £3.10 to £4.25 – the first increase in the value of the voucher in over a decade. Yet, with current levels of inflation, new analysis by First Steps Nutrition indicates the value increase from last year is no longer sufficient to cover the cost of formula milk. With inflation hitting 10% as projected, the value of Healthy Start will be further eroded. A recent story in The Guardian found that the NHS Healthy Start’s Facebook page has been flooded with complaints, after about 52,000 families were unable to sign up following the switch to digital.

Government needs to consider the rising costs carefully and ensure the scheme is fit for purpose to support all young families in need to eat well.


Author biographies

Zoe McIntyre is the Project Manager of The Food Foundation’s Children’s Right2Food Campaign – a youth-led initiative to ensure every child across the UK has access to a healthy and sustainable diet.  Her work includes ensuring that the Free School Meals and Healthy Start schemes are sufficient as a nutritional safety net in supporting all children who need them to eat well. See more:    

Sofia Parente is a Sustainable Food Places Policy and Campaigns Coordinator, Sustain. Sofia leads on driving local and national action on key food issues for Sustainable Food Places, a growing network of 80+ places all around the UK. Sofia has been working at Sustain since 2015 and during that time she led the roll out of the Sugar Smart campaign, from an idea piloted by a hand full of pioneer cities, to a national campaign with over 50 cities and other local areas involved. Her background is in animal welfare, food and environmental campaigns in Portugal (where she grew up and studied), at the EU level and in the UK.


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