Healthy Start is the UK wide food welfare scheme that provides food vouchers and free vitamins to young and low income pregnant women and families with children aged 1-4 years. Established in its current form in 2006, the scheme offers eligible women and families vouchers worth £3.10 a week (or £6.20 for a baby in the first year) to spend on:
- cows’ milk
- plain fresh and frozen fruit and vegetables
- first infant formula.
In addition special vitamin preparations for mums to be, nursing mums and children under 4 are offered via the scheme.
Why does Healthy Start matter?
Protecting the health of women, infants and young children has been a public health focus for over a century. Investing in better outcomes at the start of life has always been seen as an important part of the welfare system, and the change to a ‘food voucher’ approach in 2006 aimed to improve diets, reduce obesity, encourage breastfeeding and protect health among those who live on lower incomes.
What has happened to the scheme over the past 10 years?
When the new scheme was put in place 10 years ago it was spending £160million a year – despite increasing food poverty and no reduction in the number of births, the scheme spent £72million in 2015/2016. Decreasing entitlement due to benefit changes and lower uptake have been given as reasons for this decline. The original plan was to train the health professional ‘gatekeepers’ who have to sign a form when with a potentially eligible pregnant women or young family, but this was never nationally rolled out. Variations in local knowledge and support for the scheme are likely to lead to varying uptakes. From 2017 Scotland has taken over responsibility for the scheme and are keen to enhance the offer and process, which we hope might kick start thinking and enthusiasm for the scheme elsewhere in the UK.
What vision do we have for Healthy Start?
The Healthy Start Alliance was set up as an external advocacy group for Healthy Start in 2014. We have lobbied for better information and data about the scheme, support local areas in improving uptake, provide practical tools for those who are eligible for the scheme and aim to raise awareness with other organisations involved in health and well-being. We believe the Healthy Start scheme should:
- Increase the number of participants by looking at entitlement criteria
- Increase the voucher value which has not changed for 10 years despite changing food prices.
- Look at barriers to uptake and ensure all local authorities have plans in place to ensure knowledge about the scheme is universally built into maternal and infant services.
- Consider how the offer can better support breastfeeding: through an enhanced voucher offer for breastfeeding mums, through the potential to offer free breastmilk pumps when women return to work; through clarity when talking to expectant mothers about the importance of breastfeeding for their own and their infants health and the support availabe to them.
- Consider how food vouchers can be best used in local areas to support fruit and vegetable markets and box schemes and ensure funds are used in the local community.
- To link voucher recipients with other food projects to increase cooking skills
How can other organisations help?
- Find out who coordinates Healthy Start in areas that you work in and make links to ensure you can support each other.
- Champion the uptake of Healthy Start food vouchers in any work you do to tackle hunger and food poverty – making sure that volunteers in food banks and food sharing schemes know about the scheme and how to signpost people to it.
- Download the resource that outlines for food banks how they can support pregnant women and young families http://www.firststepsnutrition.org/pdfs/Food_Banks_Toolkit_final.pdf
- Encourage food retailers in areas you work in to sign up to receive Healthy Start food vouchers
To find out more or join the Healthy Start Alliance as a supporter and sign up to the newsletter visit www.healthystartalliance.org
To find out about eligibility criteria, to download forms and for information for health professionals see www.healthystart.nhs.uk.
Dr Helen Crawley
First Steps Nutrition Trust