The government has published data showing Healthy Start uptake is currently at 64%, falling short of the NHS target set for March 2023. These figures come as The Food Foundation’s new data shows that 27% of UK households home to children under the age of four experienced food insecurity in January 2023.
At 27%, food insecurity rates are higher in households with children under the age of four than those with only school-age children or no children at all. In January 2023, food insecurity was experienced by 23% of households with school-age children (5-17 years) and 15% of households without children.
This data illustrates that this age group is at particularly high risk of food insecurity and more needs to be done to support younger children specifically. The first years of life are critical for children’s growth and development, and it is imperative they receive nutritious food during this time.
The figures are especially concerning in light of new government data which shows that NHS BSA, which operates the Healthy Start scheme on behalf of the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), has missed its target of 75% uptake for Healthy Start, with only 64% of eligible parents and carers on average accessing the scheme across England, Wales and Northern Ireland (NHS Digital, accessed 31st March 2023).
These nations fall well behind uptake for Scotland’s equivalent scheme, ‘Best Start Foods’, which was claimed by 88% of eligible parents and carers in 2021-22. Uptake levels are low due to many families being unaware of the scheme or struggling with the application process.
The Food Foundation, Sustain and organisations working across food security and early years health and nutrition in the UK are calling for the following actions from the government:
To commit £5m of funding for a comprehensive communications campaign to improve awareness and uptake of Healthy Start – as recommended in the National Food Strategy.
Increase the Healthy Start allowance in line with food price inflation alongside other government benefits. Thereafter, the Government should review the value every six months.
Expand eligibility to all families on Universal Credit and equivalent benefits with children under five years old, as recommended in the National Food Strategy.
The Food Foundation is also calling on retailers to promote the Healthy Start Scheme to raise awareness among eligible customers as part of the Kid’s Food Guarantee.
In a response given on 21st March to a parliamentary question, DHSC stated that there “are no current plans to extend the eligibility criteria for the scheme by one year to cover children under the age of five or increase the value of Healthy Start”.
Anna Taylor, Executive Director of The Food Foundation, said: “Debilitating food price rises are making it incredibly challenging for low-income young families to afford a healthy diet. This is extremely concerning given how important good nutrition is for young children’s growth and development.
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. Much more needs to be done by government to make sure uptake improves – implementing the recommendations set out in the National Food Strategy is a good place to start.”
Dr Vicky Sibson, Director of First Steps Nutrition, said: “Not only are babies and young children most at risk of food insecurity, but they are also the most vulnerable nutritionally. To stay well, grow properly, develop and learn, they need nutritious diets. With sky-rocketing food price inflation, these diets will be more expensive and less accessible than ever, especially given the shortcomings in the Healthy Start scheme. Poor diets in the early years can have life-long impacts, making it doubly important that the government recognises the gravity of this situation and acts now.”
Alison Morton, CEO of the Institute of Health Visiting (iHV), said: “The iHV fully supports this these policy calls. The Healthy Start scheme has had a positive impact on the nutritional health of babies, children and families for many years by helping the families who most need support in order to reduce inequalities.
"However, the scheme urgently needs updating to resolve the barriers to accessing the scheme, keep pace with inflation and reach the growing numbers of families that have been pushed into poverty in the cost of living crisis. At the moment, too many families are missing out on this much-needed support. Investment, expansion, and improved access to the Healthy Start scheme are urgently needed to ensure that all eligible families get the support that they need to buy healthy foods and milk and receive Healthy Start vitamins.”
Vera Zakharov, Local Action Coordinator at Sustain, said “Food prices are at a record high, with some fruit and vegetable lines up to 25% more expensive in the wake of recent shortages. Now more than ever families with young children need the benefits they’re entitled to, which is why it’s so disappointing that the government has missed its own target of 75% uptake of Healthy Start by March 2023.
"Frontline health workers and local authorities are working hard to reach eligible families but they need government to play its part. Government needs to increase the value of the payments in line with inflation and commit to an information campaign so eligible families know how they can claim the free fruit, vegetables and milk they’re entitled to.”
Source: The Food Foundation