It was revealed this week that thousands of families are still waiting for food vouchers promised by the UK Government after the botched digitisation of Healthy Start, an NHS scheme to provide fruit, vegetables, milk and infant formula to low-income people who are pregnant or have a child under 4.

But this is only the latest in a series of problems with the Government’s handling of Healthy Start food vouchers.

This can’t go on. So I wanted to lay out the story so far: how the Government are failing struggling parents and their children, and what you can do to help.

You may have heard of the Healthy Start scheme because back in 2021, a campaign backed by Marcus Rashford, food charities and the co-operative movement successfully pushed the Government to raise the value of the food vouchers provided by the Healthy Start scheme to £4.25 a week, or £8.50 a week for children under one. 

But there was a big problem: the Government wasn’t doing enough to promote the scheme. Barely half of parents were even aware they were eligible, so millions of pounds of food vouchers were going unclaimed every week. 

That’s why we began our #HealthyStart campaign, to step in where the Government was failing and raise uptake by supporting local councils, co-ops and health bodies to run their own awareness campaigns.

One barrier to uptake was the onerous paper application form. So, in what initially seemed like a positive step, the Government digitised the scheme: allowing online applications and replacing paper coupons with pre-paid cards. But the rollout was completely botched. Thousands of eligible families had their applications to join the new digital version of the scheme rejected because of IT issues. Some have waited more than a year to see this issue resolved – depriving babies and children of essential nutrition at an incredibly important point in their development.

So how many families are eligible for the scheme are receiving the vouchers? Incredibly we still don’t know, because the Government has mysteriously stopped publishing the figures, when they were previously published monthly. The most recent public figure is nearly a year old. 

And now, if you’re a family that has somehow managed to learn about the scheme, navigate the troubled application process, and be successful in receiving the vouchers – a new and obvious problem has arisen: the cost-of-living crisis. 

In the past two years, the cost of food and formula has risen dramatically. A £4.25 voucher will simply buy a lot less fruit and veg in 2023 than it did in 2021. As the Food Foundation have highlighted, the £8.50 voucher for under-ones now doesn’t even cover the cost of a single tin of infant formula. 

This is because, inexplicably, the value of Healthy Start vouchers does not rise with inflation each year unlike other benefits. Our MPs have repeatedly called on the Government to raise the value of the vouchers in line with inflation, but they have refused to do so. 

This saga is part of a broader government failure to maximise food security in the UK. As our Party Chair Jim McMahon MP has said, the Government “should be prioritising food security in all its work. People need proper access to healthy and nutritious food.” 

Healthy Start is a crucial scheme, but without urgent action from the Government, it will increasingly become unfit for purpose. To ensure babies and children are getting the nutrition they need, the Co-operative Party believe the Government urgently needs to:

  1. Raise the value of Healthy Start vouchers in line with inflation.
  2. Urgently resolve digitisation backlog.
  3. Publish uptake and application figures monthly.
  4. Consider auto-enrolment, as recommend recently by the Local Government Association.
  5. Consider expanding the scheme’s eligibility, as recommended by Henry Dimbleby’s independent National Food Strategy report.

If you agree, you can spread the word by sharing this post and by signing our petition. Our movement has forced the Government to take action on Healthy Start before, and with your help I know we can do it again.