This site is intended for health professionals only

Study reveals how ‘Healthy Start’ programme should reach more families who need it

Study reveals how ‘Healthy Start’ programme should reach more families who need it

Many families are missing out on government support aimed at giving children from low-income families access to fresh fruit, vegetables and free vitamins, a new study has highlighted.

Researchers at the University of London, commissioned by the Department of Health and Social Care, report that over a third of families eligible for the Healthy Start scheme have yet to take up the offer.

In their study, stakeholders and users of the scheme suggested that reframing the Healthy Start programme as ‘a child’s right to food and development’, rather than as a benefit, voucher, or handout, would make the scheme more inclusive and improve uptake levels.

The findings, published in BMC Medicine, show that support for the scheme is high, as it provides benefits for child development and family wellbeing.

However, in the context of the cost-of-living crisis, the management and accessibility of the scheme could be improved.

Healthy Start is a government scheme in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland that provides families with children under four and pregnant women on very low incomes with access to free vitamins and a financial card payment.

The scheme was digitised in 2022, and a card is issued to all those eligible, which can be used to buy fruit, vegetables, cow’s milk, infant formula, and pulses. Cardholders receive £4.25 per week of pregnancy from the 10th week, £8.50 per week for each child from birth to one year and £4.25 per week for each child aged one to four.

The researchers interviewed 112 current Healthy Start stakeholders between January and June 2023. Over half (59) of the participants were parents, with the remainder comprising participants from non‐government organisations (13), retailers (11), and health and community professionals (29) at national and local levels.

Several recommendations emerged across all stakeholder interviews that could improve the scheme’s uptake and efficiency.

Notably, the researchers found that simply raising awareness of the Healthy Start scheme alone is unlikely to automatically result in a higher uptake rate.

However, stakeholders felt reframing the scheme as ‘a child’s right to food and development’ and providing practical help for families, such as helping them fill out the application form, would increase uptake.

In terms of the scheme itself, stakeholders said it was important that Healthy Start remained universally valued and stated that it could benefit from improved leadership, coordination and accountability at both national and local levels.

The researchers suggest that national and local governments implement their study’s recommendations to ensure that all families eligible for the scheme benefit from this ‘nutritional safety net’.

Professor Christina Vogel, director of the Centre for Food Policy at City University of London, said: ‘Our study highlights the importance of the scheme and ways in which efforts to implement Healthy Start locally and nationally could be better coordinated so more families can benefit.

‘In the context of ever-widening health inequalities in the UK, there should be no delay in the implementation of the recommendations that have come out of our study.’

She added: ‘Healthy Start is a much-loved and appreciated scheme that helps give all children a chance at the best start in life.’

See how our symptom tool can help you make better sense of patient presentations
Click here to search a symptom