Merton Households Missing Out On Healthy Start Vouchers

Less than half of those eligible low-income families take up their entitlement

Leonie Cooper

More than half the eligible households in Merton are missing out on Healthy Start vouchers, according to new data obtained from the NHS Business Services Authority.

This means-tested voucher scheme, introduced by the Government in 2006, aims to help low-income families with the cost of essentials such fruit, vegetables, milk and infant formula.

The figures reveal 569 households currently benefit from the voucher scheme in Merton - only 45% of those eligible. Across London, the figure is 36,375, with the overall uptake rate across the capital only 53%.

The latest Trussell Trust data also shows that 5,895 three-day emergency food parcels were handed out in Merton between April 2018 and March 2019, with 2260 of these going to children. This marks a 27% increase on the same period in the previous year.

Local London Assembly Member, Leonie Cooper AM, urged eligible families to take up their allocation and called on the Government increase their investment in the scheme. She supports calls made in Parliament for the Government to increase the value of the voucher, which has not been updated since 2009, to reflect rising food costs.

Currently, pregnant women on a low income or under the age of 18, and children aged 1-4 in households receiving certain social security benefits are all eligible for one £3.10 Healthy Start voucher per week. Children under one year old are entitled to two £3.10 vouchers each week.

This information has emerged just as figures published in a report by the First Steps Nutrition Trust estimate that annual Government spend on Healthy Start Vouchers in the UK almost halved between 2011 and 2018.

Alongside declining Government investment, the First Steps Nutrition Trust has also highlighted issues such as the complexity of the application process - and the lack of promotion and awareness of the scheme.

The food and farming charity, Sustain, has outlined a series of measures that can be taken to improve the uptake of Healthy Start vouchers. These include more effective promotion of the scheme by advice services and in appropriate settings such as GP surgeries and children’s centres, and its more widespread adoption by local food retailers- a call recently reinforced by the Association of Convenience Stores.

In the London Food Strategy, published in December 2018, the Mayor of London pledged to work alongside relevant partners to boost the uptake of Healthy Start vouchers to 80 per cent of eligibility as well as encouraging more retailers, such as markets and convenience stores, to accept the vouchers.

Ms Cooper said:“It is alarming to see declining Government investment and local engagement in the scheme, at time when so many local families are struggling to put food on the table.

“In recent years, the Government have failed to resource or put measures in place to sufficiently promote the scheme, effectively allowing it to slide down to the bottom of the list of their priorities.

“We are also in danger of this vital scheme becoming increasingly unfit for purpose with the value of the vouchers not being increased to keep up with rising food costs for almost a decade.

“Whilst the Mayor has recognised the importance of these vouchers in the fight against child obesity and malnutrition in his London Food Strategy, we need to see more robust interventions from the Government to incentivise a higher uptake of the scheme by eligible households and local retailers”.

August 13, 2019