06 Aug 2019, Katy Morton
According to new data from the NHS Business Services Authority, 47 per cent of households eligible for the means-tested voucher scheme are not currently receiving the vouchers, which help low-income families pay for fresh fruit and vegetables and milk and/or formula.
Currently, pregnant women on a low income or under the age of 18 and children aged one to four in households receiving certain social security benefits are eligible for one £3.10 Healthy Start voucher per week. Children under the age of one are entitled to two of these vouchers each week.
The latest data shows that in May this year, 36,375 London households were accessing the scheme. Sutton has the lowest take-up rate of all London boroughs with only 35 per cent of households claiming the vouchers.
It comes at a time of rising food insecurity among families in the capital. The London mayor's recent Survey of Londoners found one in six parents are facing 'low' or 'very low' food security.
A report published last year also highlighted declining Government investment in the scheme.
The First Steps Nutrition Trust report estimated that the annual Government spend on Healthy Start Vouchers in the UK almost halved between 2011 and 2018.
It also highlighted issues such as the complexity of the application process and the lack of promotion and awareness surrounding the scheme.
On top of this, calls have previously been made in Parliament for the Government to increase the value of the voucher, which has not been updated since 2009, to reflect rising food costs.
Labour’s London Assembly Food spokesperson, Fiona Twycross AM, accused the Government of ‘shirking’ its responsibility when it comes to promoting and investing in the scheme, calling for more ‘robust interventions’ to ensure a higher take-up.
She said, ‘With food insecurity on the rise and affecting one in five Londoners, it is extremely concerning to see such a significant deficit in the number of eligible families signing-up to the Healthy Start voucher scheme.
‘The Government have shirked their responsibility when it comes to promoting the scheme, draining it of the investment it needs and renewing their contract with Serco despite their clear failure to deliver.
‘This is a vital programme that ensures some of the most vulnerable children have access to basic nutrition, but it is staggering that the Government have been unable to update the value of the voucher over the last decade to keep up with the burgeoning costs of living.
‘From City Hall, the mayor has underlined the importance of these vouchers in the fight against childhood obesity and malnutrition in his London Food Strategy. We now need to see more robust interventions from the Government to incentivise a higher uptake of the scheme by eligible households and local retailers’.
In a letter published in Nursery World recently, the chief executive of the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF) June O'Sullivan, said that all early years settings should spread the word about the Healthy Start vouchers.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson, said, 'Midwives, health visitors and local authorities all promote healthy start vouchers, and the scheme is promoted through public information campaigns like Start4Life. We are now developing a digital scheme to modernise the system, making it easier for eligible people to apply for and access Healthy Start vouchers.'
To apply for Healthy Start vouchers, parents and prospective parents can get an application form from their midwife or health visitor or from Healthy Start direct.