Families are being urged to check if they are entitled to vouchers to help buy food for their children, after figures revealed almost 150,000 eligible households were not claiming before the cost of living crisis.
Pregnant women or parents and guardians to children aged under four who are receiving certain benefits are entitled to NHS Healthy Start vouchers to help buy fruit, vegetables, milk and infant formula.
The benefit is worth up to £36.96 per month per child through a prepaid card to use in stores – although older children and pregnant women get a bit less.
But NHS data shows almost a third of the more than half a million households (155,000) eligible for the scheme were not claiming the support in March, as the cost of living crisis began to take hold in the UK.
It comes as consumers face soaring food prices, with inflation hitting a record high.
Whole milk prices in the UK were 12.2% higher in April compared to a year ago, according to the most recent Office for National Statistics Consumer Prices Index (CPI) figures – much higher than overall food inflation, which was 6.7%.
Inflation for fruit meanwhile stood at 6.2% and for vegetables at 4.6%.
Research by NationalWorld meanwhile has found British supermarkets imposed price rises on one in four budget range grocery items last month, with almost 200 products affected.
Tens of thousands missing out in England, Wales and Northern Ireland
In England, just 71.4% of families entitled to Healthy Start vouchers were claiming in March, leaving 143,200 unwittingly out of pocket. In Wales, take up was 78.5% (6,300 not claiming) and in Northern Ireland it was 70.5% (5,400 missing out).
It means at least £34.2 million worth of food is going unclaimed per year.
Take-up across the three nations varied enormously from council to council, from a low of 50% in Redbridge in East London to 87% in Redcar and Cleveland in the North East.
Scottish families may be eligible for a different scheme known as Best Start Foods. Data on take-up is not available.
The charity Feeding Britain is campaigning for the Healthy Start scheme to be switched to an opt-out rather than opt-in basis, to ensure the support gets to as many families as possible.
A lack of awareness, the bureaucratic nature of the sign-up process and pride and stigma could all be factors in the low take-up rate, according to Feeding Britain director Andrew Forsey.
The charity says it is urging the Government “in the strongest possible terms” to maximise participation in the scheme – particularly as families struggle to put food on the table during the cost of living crisis.
It has also encouraged families to check whether they are eligible – the NHS has details on who can claim Healthy Start.
“We think between them that the Government and local authorities hold the data that show them exactly who is entitled to what, all we need is that little bit of extra effort to sign up families automatically while of course giving them the chance to opt out of them,” Mr Forsey said.
“So we’re asking the Government in the strongest possible terms to maximise take-up of the schemes that exist to help people because sadly at the minute people are falling through the cracks.
A Department for Health and Social Care spokesperon said: “We are committed to promoting a healthy diet for children and providing support to families who need it the most through our Healthy Start scheme.
“The introduction of an online application and pre-paid card for the Healthy Start scheme has led to over 125,000 new successful applications from people who did not benefit from the scheme’s previous paper vouchers.
“Applicants to the Healthy Start scheme must agree to the terms and conditions of their new pre-paid care prior to receiving it. For this reason, we are unable to enrol all families that are eligible onto the scheme automatically.”
Who is eligible for Healthy Start?
Women who are pregnant or families with children under four may be entitled to the Healthy Start scheme if they receive certain benefits.
People who are on Universal Credit can apply if:
- They are at least 10 weeks pregnant or have at least one child under four
- Their monthly take-home pay from employment is £408 or less
People who get Child Tax Credit can apply if:
- They have at least one child under four
- Their family’s annual income is £16,190 or less
What will you get?
Successful applicants will get a prepaid Healthy Start card. Money will be added to it every four weeks.
Pregnant women and those with children aged between one and four will get £4.25 per week, or about £18.48 a month.
Those with children aged from birth to one will get £8.50, the equivalent of £36.96.
You’ll also be able to get free vitamins.
What can you buy?
The card can be used to buy fresh, frozen and tinned fruit and vegetables, plain cow’s milk including long-life and ultra-heat treated (UHT) and formula for babies up to 12 months, not including follow-on formula.
How can you apply?
You can apply online through the NHS website with your name, address, date of birth, National Insurance number and benefit award letter, as well as your baby’s due date letter if you are pregnant.
You can also apply by phone or by email, the details of which are on the NHS Healthy Start website.