Thousands of women and children miss out on healthy food scheme in 2018

Thousands of women and children miss out on healthy food scheme in 2018

01 June 2019

Charities and health groups, including the British Dietetic Association, have warned Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock that low-income women and children in over 130,000 households are missing out on £28.6m of free fruit, vegetables and milk due to poor promotion of the Healthy Start voucher scheme.

The coalition of 26 charities and healthy bodies includes Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming2, the Royal Society for Public Health, Royal College of Midwives and the Trussell Trust. They are calling on the Government to boost promotion of the Healthy Start voucher scheme, which can be worth up to £900 per child over the first four years of life3.

The vouchers adds at least £3.10 to a family shop per child each week, which could buy two litres of semi-skimmed milk, 1kg carrots, 900g frozen peas and 4 apples at a typical discount supermarket. Over the first four years of a child’s life this is equivalent to 1,090 pints of milk, 1,100 apples, 218kg of carrots and 143kg of peas.

Kath Dalmeny, Chief Executive of Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming, said “The government is missing a trick. This money has been set aside to support low income and young families, but the Healthy Start voucher scheme for fruit, vegetables and milk is not being properly managed or promoted. Over 4 million children are living in households who sometimes run out of money for essentials such as food – these vouchers can help keep good food on the table.”

Shirley Cramer, CBE, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Public Health, said “Having access to nutritious food required for healthy development is a right of every child. The Healthy Start scheme must be fully utilised, as it has great potential to help combat the rising rates of childhood obesity. We know that healthy food is three times more expensive than unhealthy food; the scheme can help those at the greatest disadvantage in the most deprived areas. It establishes eating patterns, forms healthy habits for life and shows children what food is good for them. We must equip parents to safeguard the health of their children and the next generation.”

However in 2018, pregnant women and children missed out on an estimated £28.6 million worth of vouchers in England and Wales4, representing a missed opportunity by government to help families afford to heed their young families and also to encourage healthy eating habits that could have lifelong benefits.

Estimated unclaimed Healthy Start vouchers in 2018 by region (England and Wales) (Data source: Healthy Start Issuing Unit)

East Midlands


East of England




North East


North West


South East


South West




West Midlands


Yorkshire & Humber



The open letter calls on the Government to fund a programme to ensure that midwives, health visitors, GPs and other relevant staff in health, social care and early years settings actively help all eligible pregnant women and new parents claim their Heathy Start vouchers. The charities and health groups suggest that this programme could be funded from the estimated £28.6 million of Healthy Start vouchers that went unclaimed last year.

The letter also asks the Government to confirm the date for a consultation on Healthy Start, which was committed to by the Department of Health and Social Care last June in Chapter 2 of Childhood Obesity: a plan for action.

The Sustain food and farming alliance, which coordinated the open letter, is encouraging people to write to their MP about Healthy Start to make sure all children have access to fresh fruit and vegetables for a healthy start in life.

Average take-up of the vouchers in England and Wales was only 64% in 2018, or approximately 135,000 households missing out, with no government funds dedicated to supporting local health service providers to promote the scheme. A map of current take-up rates in England and Wales is publicly available and updated monthly by the Department of Health.


  1. Healthy Start is a means-tested scheme available in England, Wales and Northern Ireland for all women who are pregnant under the ages of 18, as well as pregnant women and their children four years or younger who are on a low-income meeting certain eligibility criteria. Pregnant women and children over one and under four years old receive one £3.10 voucher per week. Children under one year old can get two £3.10 vouchers (£6.20) per week.
  2. Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming coordinates a number of projects related to food poverty and healthy eating, including
    1. Food Power, which supports a network of over 50 local multi-sector partnerships working to tackle the root causes of food poverty, as part of a four-year programme run in partnership by Sustain and Church Action on Poverty and funded by the Big Lottery Fund.
    2. The Children’s Food Campaign , which advocates for better food and food teaching for children in schools, protection of children from junk food marketing and clear food labelling that can be understood by everyone, including children.

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