Healthy Start campaigners look to capitalise on Rashford work

The Manchester United striker struck a blow against food poverty last week. But more work is needed to help feed struggling families, starting with Healthy Start vouchers being available online, say Sustain

Help struggling families by making Healthy Start vouchers available online, food poverty campaigners told ministers today in an open letter, as they look to carry on Marcus Rashford’s fight to feed kids.

The Manchester United striker’s campaigning put food poverty at the top of the news agenda last week as he inspired the government to U-turn on their plans not to fund school meal vouchers over the summer.

But Rashford acknowledged that the victory was just a start – and that has been followed up by an open letter to health minister Jo Churchill signed by 35 organisations calling for Healthy Start vouchers to move online.

Led by food and farming alliance Sustain and including the Royal College of Midwives, The Women’s Institute and British Dietetic Association, the campaigners say that childhood food insecurity does not begin at school age and families on low incomes need support for early years.

The often-overlooked Healthy Start vouchers do just that by supporting pregnant women and children aged up to four to buy fruit and veg, milk and infant formula that can be worth up to £900 per child.

But the take-up of the paper-based scheme has been notoriously low even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit – 47 per cent of eligible families missed out on the vouchers last year with an estimated £28.6m of vouchers going unclaimed in 2018 and £46m in 2019.

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The campaigners behind the open letter have warned that there could be a significant increase in applications now that scores of people have turned to digital-by-default Universal Credit to get by in the wake of Covid-19’s economic devastation.

With few families owning a printer at home and a paper-based system remaining inefficient and labour-intensive, the time is now to switch Healthy Start online, says Sustain chief executive Kath Dalmeny.

“Ensuring pregnant women and young children have access to the nutritional safety net that Healthy Start vouchers provide is more important now than ever,” she said. “The number of new claimants for benefits continues to grow and so government must invest in developing technology that matches this pace of growth, both for the sake of families and their health, as well as for the efficiency of the NHS and its resources.”

Lynne Stubbings, chair of another signatory The Women’s Institute, added: “It is devastating that five million people in the UK living in households with children have experienced food insecurity since the lockdown started. The Healthy Start voucher scheme is an important initiative that can help address this, but access is limited by the fact that it’s not currently possible to apply online. This needs to change as quickly as possible to ensure vulnerable families can afford the food they need, which is why we are calling on the government to accelerate the modernisation programme.”

In the wake of Rashford’s efforts last week, Boris Johnson agreed with the Manchester United striker that tackling children’s food poverty will “always be a priority”.

For more on Rashford’s efforts and the next steps to ensure no one grows up hungry in the UK, get next week’s Big Issue magazine, available via subscription, app and in stores from Thursday.