Step up and extend Healthy Start vouchers to tackle child food poverty and obesity, public health experts have urged the government.
An open letter signed by more than 50 directors of public health, healthcare professionals and sector experts was sent to chancellor Rishi Sunak and health secretary Matt Hancock.
They are asking the government to increase the value of the voucher – which has not changed in 10 years – from £3.10 to £4.25 a week in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland the voucher is already worth £4.25.
Healthy Start vouchers can be used to buy fruit and vegetables, vitamins, pulses and milk. In addition, the letter calls for the vouchers to be available for every pregnant woman and household with children under four receiving universal credit or equivalent benefit. In 2019, the letter pointed out, less than half of children living in poverty were eligible, with only 33% actually receiving it due to implementation problems.
Experts also want £5m to be spent on an awareness campaign as take-up has dropped from 73% (374,896 families) five years ago to just 48% (251,547).
The letter stated: “The devastating impact that COVID-19 continues to have on food insecurity means that the Healthy Start Scheme has never been so important in safeguarding the health and nutrition of young families.
“14% of UK families with children have experienced food insecurity in the past six months which, combined with the UK’s high levels of childhood obesity, looks set to further compound the poor health of the UK’s children.”
It added: “Inadequate nutrition during the first 1,000 days of life can have life-long consequences, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, type two diabetes and obesity. Inequalities mean low-income families may struggle to access and afford a healthy diet.
“There are striking inequalities in fruit and vegetable consumption, with the highest income groups consuming about 1.5 portions per day more than the lowest. During lockdown, poorer children both snacked more and ate fewer fruit and vegetables than their wealthier counterparts.”
Signatories include the Food Foundation, Sustain, the Royal Society for Public Health and Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.
Last week the latest figures for the NHS National Child Measurement Programme in England were released, showing that children in the most deprived areas were twice as likely to have obesity than those in the least deprived, by the time they start school.
Increasing the voucher value is a recommendation in the National Food Strategy, as well as footballer Marcus Rashford’s #EndChildFoodPoverty petition, signed by more than one million people. Implementing the measures set out in the letter would cost £115m a year of extra funding.
Supermarkets have been shown to have a potentially pivotal role in tackling obesity. Tesco pledged over the weekend to top up Healthy Start vouchers by £1 over winter from mid-November, following Iceland’s announcement in September that it would top up the vouchers with £1 worth of frozen veg.