URGENT ACTION IS NEEDED to tackle low take up of the UK Government’s Healthy Start voucher scheme, as new analysis by the Local Government Association (LGA) reveals that nearly 150,000 eligible families a month are currently missing out on them. The vouchers can be used to buy cow’s milk, fruit and vegetables, infant formula or pulses.

As more and more families feel the strain as cost-of-living pressures increase, the LGA said it is calling on the Government to make vital changes to the scheme to ensure it helps families most in need.

It has published a five-point plan to increase take-up and improve the scheme, including a call for the Government to ensure that the value of the vouchers reflects the rate of inflation for food and non-alcoholic drinks, so that the scheme provides the best possible value for money for those who use it.

Analysis of NHS digital figures by the LGA, which represents more than 350 councils in England and Wales, has found that:

  • In March 2022 alone, 143,000 eligible families missed out on the vouchers – equivalent to the entire population of the city of Preston.
  • Around one in three people eligible for the Healthy Start vouchers had not claimed for them. On average, those areas with higher overall levels of deprivation had lower take up.
  • The vouchers have failed to reflect rises in food prices with the cost of staple items such as milk and tomatoes rising from between 21 and 47 per cent since prices were set for the vouchers in April 2021.

The latest data showed that London boroughs had a nine per cent lower take up of the vouchers compared with the rest of the country. Take up varied drastically from council to council, with 87 per cent being the highest in Redcar and Cleveland whilst Redbridge is on only 50 per cent, the lowest in the country.

Councils are also urgently calling for the most up-to-date take up data for the vouchers to be published, with the last set of monthly stats being published in March 2022. Without this data, it is impossible for any local authority in the country to be able to understand the impact of the transition to digital vouchers or uptake within their local areas.

The LGA is urging the Government to expand access to this scheme to include all children who are facing food insecurity and poverty, which would help in addressing diet related inequalities resulting from low-incomes.

Cllr David Fothergill, Chairman of the LGA’s Community Wellbeing Board said: “Every year millions of pounds of vital Healthy Start vouchers go unclaimed and families miss out on free fruit, vegetables and milk. At this challenging time of rising food prices and overall cost of living, we need government to ramp up efforts to ensure all eligible families can access healthy and nutritious food to give children and babies the best start in life.

“Our analysis shows that prices of food have increased drastically since costs were set for the scheme 18 months ago. If the scheme is to help as many people as it can, the vouchers must reflect current inflationary food prices.

“The Government should also shift from an ‘opt in’ to an ‘opt out’ registration system for the vouchers, which would remove any barriers families face when applying online and drive take up.”

The LGA’s five-point plan for Healthy Food vouchers

To ensure eligible families can access healthy and nutritious food, particularly as the cost-of-living increases, the LGA is calling for:

  1. An increase in the value of Healthy Start vouchers in line with the current inflation rate and reviewed every six months.
  2. Expansion of the scheme to include all families on Universal Credit.
  3. Raising the age of eligibility up to and including children who are five years old to bridge the nutritional gap that exists before FSM eligibility.
  4. Auto-enrolment of the Healthy Start scheme. A shift from an ‘opt in’ to an ‘opt out’ registration system through an automated process would remove any barriers families face when applying online.
  5. The Government should invest in an awareness raising campaign to promote uptake of the voucher amongst eligible families. This could be undertaken using the underspend from the scheme.

* More information on how to apply for Healthy Start vouchers here.

* Source: Local Government Association