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The UK’s food justice deficit is a sad reality for too many children and families, and the pandemic is only increasing that pressure. The Healthy Start Scheme could be an easy way to improve the nutrition of children and families in Leeds and beyond but sadly, in common with the rest of the country, we’ve seen what appears to be a drop in the take up of Healthy Start vouchers over 2020. Uptake in Leeds was extremely high at 79% and sadly this has dropped to 56% in recent months.

We have also seen an understandable reduction in the number and quality of face to face appointments and visits to venues that hold Healthy Start application forms during the pandemic. With few families owning a printer at home, getting hold of the forms to apply has proved an insurmountable barrier to some.

We also know that recipients have suffered delays in getting their hands on vouchers, and that has hugely affected those who are in temporary accommodation (and are therefore likely to the most in need). Government has delayed rolling out a digital process which everyone knows would improve matters hugely but until we get a system fit for purpose, those of us committed to ensuring that people get the benefits they are entitled to are left to do out best with what we have.

In Leeds we have retained all of our children’s centres, and these play a key role in delivering support to families eligible for the Healthy Start vouchers. The vouchers are publicised through our children’s centres’ ‘What’s On?’ guides and Facebook pages and are discussed as part of delivery of support groups for new parents. During the pandemic, family outreach workers have continued to work remotely and share application forms with parents not already aware of the scheme.

To further promote uptake, we will be working to encourage nurseries, including private settings, to advertise the Healthy Start vouchers. This can be targeted to those who provide 2 year old funded places whose parents will meet the criteria. In addition to this, our teams are also planning to put some information about the vouchers in all the New Birth packs that they distribute, so that families who are eligible have the information early.

With yet another lockdown upon us, we are committed to supporting our most vulnerable children and families in Leeds. We will continue to monitor the Healthy Start scheme and take every opportunity to promote the uptake of the vouchers in Leeds as part of our commitment to delivering food justice in the City.