The government has missed its target to increase the take-up of NHS healthy food vouchers aimed at vulnerable parents of young children, it has emerged, despite soaring grocery prices and rising food poverty.
The latest figure show that take-up of the ill-starred Healthy Start scheme, designed to help pregnant women and parents of under-fours in low-income families pay for fruit, vegetables, milk, and baby milk powder, has barely shifted in a year.
Figure shows young families on low incomes are the worst hit by food insecurity, with 27% frequently unable to afford to buy enough food to ensure that they and their families eat regularly and healthily.
Just 64% of eligible parents in England, Wales and Northern Ireland claimed Heathy Start vouchers at the end of March, up from 63% a year earlier. According to the Food Foundation, the government’s target was 75%. It is said that by contrast the equivalent scheme in Scotland achieved an 88% take-up.
About 550,000 low-income mothers on benefits who are pregnant or have children aged under four are eligible for the voucher scheme, which offers weekly per-child payments of £4.25 during pregnancy, then £8.50 a week for babies up to one year old, and £4.25 thereafter.
The scheme has struggled since its inception in 2017, with take-up in England and Northern Ireland plummeting to less than 50% by early 2020. It increased during the start of the Covid pandemic but fell again after technical problems when the scheme switched from paper vouchers to digital cards in late 2021. Delays have left some parents waiting more than a year for vouchers.
As food insecurity increases – the latest figures show that nearly 4 million UK children are in food poverty – campaigners have called on ministers to introduce automatic enrollment for the vouchers, to increase their value and extend eligibility to more parents. The calls have so far fallen on deaf ears in Whitehall.
Food inflation stands at 18.2%, with prices of fruit, vegetables and baby powder having risen massively over the past year. The current Healthy Start allowance does not cover the full cost of any infant formula on the market.
Anna Taylor, executive director of the Food Foundation, said: “Healthy Start is a highly targeted scheme that should be helping families most in need, but pitifully low uptake levels mean there are families all over the country who are missing out on this statutory scheme .”
The Department of Health and Social Care was approached for comment.