Families with young children are collectively missing out on over £880,000 a week which could be spent on food, Which? has found, as it calls for supermarkets to do more to help those most in need during the cost of living crisis.
Despite millions of people all over the country struggling to keep food on the table, the consumer champion has calculated that at least £45 million a year worth of extra support for families with young children in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is not making it to those in need because take up is so low.
The NHS Healthy Start scheme provides extra help to pregnant women as well as families with young children who are both on a low income and on qualifying benefits. The support comes in the form of a card which can be used to pay for healthy food such as milk, infant formula and fruit and vegetables. Those eligible can receive top ups of £4.25 or £8.50 a week depending on the age of the child.
However, Which? found that low take up means more than two hundred thousand eligible families are missing out on this extra support with at least £880,000 going unclaimed each week which equates to £45.8 million per year.
At 63.9 per cent, uptake of the scheme overall has fallen well behind the government’s target of 75 per cent for March 2023. There are only five local authorities above the target. By comparison, a similar scheme in Scotland has an estimated take up rate of 88 per cent.
As part of the study, Which? identified local authority areas including several London Boroughs and parts of Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire where take up is low but where there is the greatest opportunity for improvements to be made because there are lots of eligible families to target.
Some supermarkets have previously made efforts to promote the Healthy Start scheme and provided additional support by handing out extra vouchers, free frozen vegetables or through targeted marketing campaigns on key products like milk. Which? believes supermarkets should build on this and boost awareness through promotions, ensure their staff are well trained to support people and make it as easy as possible to use the card in stores and online in order to improve take up.
The government has a crucial role to play by better promoting the scheme, uplifting its value to reflect rising food prices as well as expanding eligibility but Which?’s analysis shows that there is also an opportunity for supermarkets to better market the scheme and provide those who use Healthy Start prepaid cards in their stores with extra top ups at the tills.
While some of the supermarkets have engaged with the consumer champion as part of its Affordable Food For All campaign, their response has been far too limited to date given the scale of the challenge people are facing. More ambitious actions are needed that will help people eat affordably and healthily.
Which? is now calling on the major supermarkets to act by providing the support people around the country desperately need in order to keep food on the table during the ongoing cost of living crisis.
Sue Davies, Head of Consumer Rights and Food Policy, said:
“The Healthy Start scheme has potential to help many hard-up families that are struggling with the unrelenting cost of living crisis and have had to skip meals or use food banks as a result. However, poor take-up means millions of pounds’ worth of help is going unclaimed.
“There is an important role for the government to expand the scheme and increase its value, but we are also calling on supermarkets to help customers by better promoting what is available and providing extra top ups for those who use the scheme.
“Supermarkets also need to make it easier for all customers to work out which items offer the best value for money by making sure their pricing is clear and easily comparable between items. Supermarkets must ensure everyone has access to basic, affordable food ranges, especially in areas where they are most needed.”
Notes to editors:
Which? Affordable Food For All Campaign
- The consumer champion’s Affordable Food For All campaign calls on supermarkets to do more to ensure own-brand budget line items are widely available throughout all branches – including in smaller ‘convenience’ stores. They should also make pricing and offers more transparent so that it is easier to compare and work out which products offer the best value.
- More than 69,000 supporters have signed our petition so far calling on the supermarkets to take action.
- Alongside the University of Leeds Consumer Data Research Centre, Which? has developed the Priority Places For Food Index which shows where in the UK people are the most vulnerable to food insecurity.
- Sign the petition: https://campaigns.which.co.uk/affordable-food/
- £45.8m calculation based on lowest £4.25 going unclaimed each week. For the whole of England, Wales and Northern Ireland it’s £880,523 per week, multiplied by 52 is £45,787,222. This is an underestimate of the total amount going unclaimed as an unknown number of potential recipients will be eligible for £8.50 a week.
- The level of take up of the government scheme varies widely across England and Wales, Which? analysis of official data found, with participation rates as low as 50 per cent in some areas including in London, the South East and the North West.
Table – English Local authorities that have at least 40% non-participation of eligible beneficiaries and 2000 eligible beneficiaries
|Local Authority||Total Entitled Beneficiaries||Total Eligible Beneficiaries||Uptake (%)|
|Barking and Dagenham||2047||3823||53.5%|
The causes of this geographical variation are not certain, but place-based factors are relevant since the variation is persistent over time. Healthcare professionals are a key mechanism to increase awareness of the scheme and so differences in local training or processes might be one explanation for these wide differences in takeup. A previous evaluation found that many non-English speakers had never heard or heard very little about the Healthy Start scheme, this finding may have persisted.
- The five local authority areas where take up has exceeded the government target includes: North East Lincolnshire 75.4%, Blaenau Gwent 75.5%, Neath Port Talbot 75.9%, Hartlepool 78.6% and City of London 81.8%, although the latter only has a very small number of eligible participants
- The Scottish equivalent of the scheme (Best Start Foods scheme) has an estimated 88 per cent participation rate.
Previous supermarket initiatives
- There are some examples of good practice promoting the Healthy Start scheme. Iceland has for example promoted the scheme on milk bottles with its “Could you get this milk for free?” campaign. It has also promoted the Healthy Start scheme with special QR coded delivery vans and has more recently partnered with Del Monte to promote Healthy Start on Del Monte frozen fruit products. The Coop also promotes use of the scheme on till screens across its stores, so that it is visible at point of sale.
- Several supermarkets have previously provided additional support – including through additional vouchers or in Iceland’s case, free frozen vegetables. The majority of the major retailers have faced difficulties providing top ups for the new prepaid card scheme compared to the previous paper voucher scheme. Sainsbury’s has however still been able to commit to providing additional £2 top ups for people eligible for Healthy Start across England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the form of vouchers.
- It is important that other supermarkets follow these examples and provide this much needed additional support. The switch to the card was intended to bring a number of benefits, including being more discreet, payments being added automatically and the ability to retain money on the card, rather than having to spend it in one transaction.
- Supermarkets need to work with the government to work around the technical challenges that are preventing some of them from providing top ups. Which? analysis shows that more generally, there is still a lot more that they can be doing to help raise awareness of the scheme within stores and online, building on innovative initiatives that have already been tried.
Declining value of Healthy Start Scheme
- Which? found that as well as low take up,
Role for government
- Which? believes the government should be immediately uplifting the value of the scheme to take into account the high levels of food price inflation since April 2021.
- However, the government can go further than this. Now that the scheme has moved away from the use of paper vouchers, we see no reason why the payment should not be automatically uprated in line with inflation as happens to other welfare payments. For the comparable Scottish scheme, Best Start Foods, the value will be uplifted by 10.1% from 1st April 2023.
- In line with recommendations made by the National Food Strategy, the government should expand eligibility to all families on Universal Credit and equivalent benefits with children under five years old.
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