Public health directors urge UK government to improve Healthy Start scheme

Yesterday (3 November 2020), the Food Foundation reported that a letter was sent to Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care from senior healthcare professionals operating in Public Health, Civil Society, Academia and Local Government. The letter, with over 50 signatures, urges the Government to adopt a recommendation taken from the National Food Strategy Part One to improve the Healthy Start scheme which provides pregnant women and low-income families with children under 4 with free vitamins and food vouchers to purchase vegetables, fruit, pulses and milk.

The recommendation is one of three key asks adopted by England footballer Marcus Rashford MBE in his #EndChildFoodPoverty campaign. A national spotlight has been placed in the last few weeks on the issue of extending Free School Meals and additional support for children outside of term time. However, sector experts and healthcare professionals are reminding Government of the importance of the Healthy Start Scheme ask to the #EndChildFoodPoverty campaign. The letter makes the point that to really tackle issues around food insecurity and rising obesity rates, a focus needs to be put into early years support schemes. The letter points out that the value of the Healthy Start vouchers has not risen in line with inflation at all over the past decade.

The specific ask in the letter is to put £115 million/year of additional funding towards improving the Healthy Start scheme by implementing the recommendations proposed in Part One of the National Food Strategy:

  • Increase the value of Healthy Start vouchers to £4.25 per week
  • Expand the scheme to every pregnant woman and household with children under four in receipt of Universal Credit or equivalent benefits
  • Fund a communications campaign costing £5 million

Caroline Bovey BEM RD, chair, British Dietetic Association said: “Healthy Start is an important means of improving the nutrition of families and in particular young children, at a point in their life where it will have a particularly significant impact. We know that even before Covid-19, many families were food insecure, but many more will have been made so by the pandemic. Healthy Start is an existing programme that can be strengthened easily and quickly and therefore have a rapid impact.”

The letter coincides with the release last week of the latest National Child Measurement Programme NHS report for 2019/20 which highlights growing health inequities in the UK, with children living in the most deprived areas now more than twice as likely to have obesity than those living in the least deprived areas by the time they start school. 13.3% of reception children living in the most deprived areas have obesity compared to 6.0% of those living in the least deprived areas – illustrating the importance of early years nutrition.

The letter also coincides with an announcement from Tesco that they are going to offer free fruit and vegetables to 500,00 families this Winter who are eligible for the Healthy Start scheme. This is another example of a major retailer making a commitment to boost the scheme, with Iceland launching a similar initiative in September.

Last week the National Food Strategy also published new evidence supporting the three recommendations which can be viewed here.

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