Over 200,000 families ‘missing out on free food’

Cheerful mother and baby spending time in shopping in supermarkets, shallow depth of field

The findings come as households continue to face record of supermarket inflation. (Getty)

More than 200,000 pregnant women and families with young children are missing out on free food payments available through a government scheme, according to new analysis.

Only 64% of eligible people were receiving the Healthy Start payments in March 2023, according to the food charity Sustain – falling short of the government’s target of hitting 75% by the end of that month.

New analysis by the charity shows 207,000 families across England, Wales and Northern Ireland missed out on a potential £68m in Healthy Start Scheme payments in the last year.

These payments could be a lifeline for many struggling families, with the cost of living crisis seeing the price of fresh food in the UK rising by 17.8% in the year to April.

Furthermore, recent research from the Food Foundation shows the number of households with children experiencing food insecurity has nearly doubled in the past year, with an estimated 3.7 million children at risk of going hungry.

Read more: Coffee beans and ready meals surge in prices as food inflation hits record highs

A shopping trolley is seen at a supermarket in Manchester, Britain, March 22, 2023. The United Kingdom's UK consumer price index CPI rose to 10.4 percent in the 12 months to February 2023 from 10.1 percent in January, the Office for National Statistics ONS said on Wednesday.  (Photo by Jon Super/Xinhua via Getty Images)

It is thought that many eligible families aren’t taking up the offer due to complications of the sign-up process, or because they simply aren’t aware of the scheme. (Getty Images)

Despite these stark figures, there have still been poorer than hoped uptake for the Healthy Start scheme, which provides fruit, vegetables, vitamins and milk for young families on low incomes.

Birmingham has suffered the biggest losses of around £1.9m in 2023, according to Sustain, while Manchester and Leeds are set to lose out on over £1m each.

Meanwhile the London Borough of Newham has big losses in proportion to its size, with £723,000 going unclaimed due to a low uptake rate of 53%.

It is thought that many families are not accountable either because of complications in the application process, or simply because they are unaware they are eligible. You can find out more about how to apply here.

Those who do claim are finding the value of Healthy Start outpaced by inflation, with payments no longer able to cover the cost of infant formula according to analysis by the First Steps Nutrition Trust.

Read more: UK supermarkets face calls for ‘profiteering’ investigations as inflation soars


Sustain breaks down which regions of the UK are missing out the most. (sustain)

Vera Zakharov, Local Action Coordinator at Sustain, said: “It is unacceptable that more than 207,000 families are missing out on £68 million of free fruit, veg and milk at a time when food prices continue to soar.

“Research shows families with young children are most at risk of food insecurity, and far too many are not even aware that they can access this support.

“The government must do all it can to promote Healthy Start properly, increase payments in line with inflation, and work toward auto-enrollment to prevent more families from missing out.

Read more: Why you’re worried the £301 cost of living payment isn’t enough

Children’s Food Advocacy Manager at the Food Foundation, Zoe McIntyre, said: “It’s truly heart-breaking that more than 200,000 families with very young children are missing out on vital funds that could relieve them of some of the worry and anguish of food insecurity and rising food bills.

“It also begs the question – where do the millions of unretrieved pounds set aside for these families to go?

“The government needs to do what’s right and properly invest in Healthy Start starting with a comprehensive communications campaign to make sure these families miss out on healthy food, milk and vitamins they are entitled to longer.”

Yahoo News has contacted the Department of Health and Social Care for comment.

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