“Put healthy food vouchers online” health, food and poverty coalition tells government

Government must act faster to ensure the youngest children in low-income families can also access healthy food, says coalition of 35 organisations in open letter to health minister Jo Churchill MP.

23 June 2020

Healthy Start vouchers (1) for low-income families need to be available online, a group of health, food and poverty organisations told ministers today. In an open letter to health minister Jo Churchill, the coalition, led by food and farming alliance Sustain (2) and including the Royal College of Midwives, The Women’s Institute and British Dietetic Association, called on government to speed up development of a modern online application service, rather than relying solely on out-dated paper application forms.

The Government’s decision last week to extend free school meal vouchers through the summer holidays is welcome. However, childhood food insecurity doesn’t begin at school age – families on a low income need support during crucial early childhood development years. This is precisely what Healthy Start vouchers bring to the table by supporting pregnant women and children up to four years old, and yet 47% of families missed out on them last year (3).  

The campaigners also say the scheme helps families get enough vitamin D, which government advises is critical during periods of prolonged lockdown. With predictions of a second wave of coronavirus later in the year, getting the form online is vital to keeping families healthy.

The Healthy Start scheme provides young and low-income pregnant women and low-income families with young children vouchers to purchase vegetables, fruit, milk and infant formula, which can be worth up to £900 per child (4). However, the only way to apply is via a paper application form that needs to be completed and returned by post – there is no way to apply online. Typically, community and health services help families to access and complete the paper application, but families’ contact with them has been severely diminished during the Covid-19 outbreak and many do not have printers at home.

The letter calls on government to accelerate this modernisation programme in order to ensure vulnerable families can afford the food they need, particularly during the Covid-19 outbreak. While initial steps have been taken to digitise aspects of the scheme over the last year, paper applications will continue to be the only way for the majority of eligible families to apply until at least the end of 2020.

Accelerating the online system would also help to prepare for a likely swell in applications as more people facing economic hardship will be eligible for the scheme. With an additional 1.8 million new Universal Credit claimants since lockdown, health officials could see a significant increase in applicants. Processing paper applications by hand is inefficient and labour intensive at a time when resources need to be deployed effectively within the NHS.

Moreover, take up of the scheme has been notoriously low and declining for many years, despite the benefits for families who do use the scheme.  Modernising the application process will help more families quickly claim this vital benefit. In 2018, it was estimated that thousands of families missed out on £28.6 million worth of vouchers (5). In 2019, this was estimated to have increased to over £46 million as only 53% of eligible families accessed the vouchers.

Ensuring pregnant women and young children have access to the nutritional safety net that Healthy Start vouchers provide is more important now than ever. 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.” Kath Dalmeny, Chief Executive, Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming

It is devastating that 5 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.” Lynne Stubbings, Chair of The Women’s Institute

Healthy Start vouchers provide much needed nutritional support to mothers on low income. Sadly these are not being claimed by many of those entitled to receive them. Placing the vouchers online will be a simple but important way of making them more accessible and increasing take up rates” Gill Walton, Chief Executive, The Royal College of Midwives

Dietitians see the consequences of health inequalities and food poverty on families in their work every day. The Healthy Start voucher scheme is an important way to address some of these issues and improve children’s health outcomes. Anything that makes it easier for people to access this welcome benefit should be implemented quickly, and promoted widely, including with further investment to raise the value of these vouchers.”  Caroline Bovey RD, Chair of the British Dietetic Association


  1. Healthy Start is a means-tested scheme available in England, Wales and Northern Ireland for all women who are pregnant under the age of 18, as well as pregnant women and their children four years or younger who are on a low-income meeting certain eligibility criteria. Pregnant women and children over one and under four years old receive one £3.10 voucher per week. Children under one year old can get two £3.10 vouchers (£6.20) per week.
  2. Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming coordinates a number of projects related to food poverty and healthy eating, including
    • Food Power, which supports a network of over 50 local multi-sector partnerships working to tackle the root causes of food poverty, as part of a four-year programme run in partnership by Sustain and Church Action on Poverty and funded by the National Lottery Community  Fund.
    • The Children’s Food Campaign , which advocates for better food and food teaching for children in schools, protection of children from junk food marketing and clear food labeling that can be understood by everyone, including children.
    • Veg Cities, which works to increase the availability and consumption of vegetables, being run as a feature campaign of Sustainable Food Cities, led by Sustain in partnership with the wider Peas Please initiative and funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.
    • Right to Food, which advocates for the realisation of the Right to Food in UK law to ensure that everyone can enjoy safe, nutritious and sustainable food. This project is a collaboration between Nourish Scotland, Just Fair, the Institute of Health and Society at the University of Newcastle and is supported by the Baring Foundation.
    • London Food Poverty Campaign ,which encourages London boroughs to address food poverty beyond the food bank, including promoting Healthy Start, championing school holiday food provision, highlighting good practice in meals on wheels provision and supporting areas to develop food poverty action plans. This project is supported by the Trust for London.
  3. Figure based on data from Healthy Start Issuing Unit (HSIU) for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, who reported in July 2018 that the average number of vouchers issued per beneficiary is 1.425, or £4.42 per household per week. Over 52 weeks in 2019, with an average of 53% voucher uptake, the estimated shortfall to eligible beneficiaries is £46,163,487.76.
  1. Calculation based on a woman who claims the vouchers from confirmation of pregnancy at 10 weeks (30 weeks at £3.10 per week) to full term, two vouchers for an infant from 0-1 year (52 weeks at £6.20 per week) and one voucher until the child’s fourth birthday (156 weeks at £3.10 per week).
  2. See Thousands of women and children miss out on healthy food scheme in 2018 (May 2019) for details.
  3. Responsibility for Healthy Start has been devolved to the Scottish Government, who replaced it with Best Start Foods. This includes an online application form, digital smart card in place of paper vouchers, an increase in the value of the vouchers up to £4.25 and an expanded list of eligible foods to purchase, including pulses and eggs.