New analysis estimates nearly 150,000 eligible families are missing out on the Healthy Start Voucher scheme every month - and this could be worth more than £400 over the course of a year.
The Government offers vouchers worth £4.25 a week to pregnant women and their children aged up to four-years-old who are in low-income families. All pregnant women under 18-years-old are also eligible.
What's more, eligible families with a baby under the age of one receive double the amount - £8.50 a week.
The money can be used to buy fresh, frozen or tinned fruit, vegetables and pulses, plus cow’s milk and infant formula.
If families don't take up the offer, they are missing out on £221 a year, or £442 a year for those with children under one.
About one in three people eligible for the vouchers had not claimed them in March 2022, according to the Local Government Association (LGA).
This equated to 143,000 families not using the vouchers they were entitled to, with the areas with highest deprivation seeing the lowest take up.
London boroughs had 9% lower take up of the vouchers compared to the rest of the country, and take up varied drastically across local authorities.
The best take up was 87% in Redcar and Cleveland, but the lowest was Redbridge at 50%.
Cllr David Fothergill, chairman of the LGA’s Community Wellbeing Board said: “Every year millions of pounds of vital Healthy Start vouchers go unclaimed and families miss out on free fruit, vegetables and milk. At this challenging time of rising food prices and overall cost of living, we need the Government to ramp up efforts to ensure all eligible families can access healthy and nutritious food to give children and babies the best start in life."
The LGA also wants the value of the vouchers to be increased to reflect the rise in inflation. Milk has risen 48% since prices were set for the vouchers in April 2021, according to ONS statistics. Meanwhile, tomatoes have risen in price by 19% in the same time, ONS data shows.
The organisation, which represents more than 350 councils in England and Wales, also wants the scheme expanded to all families on Universal Credit, children up to five-years-old, and all children facing food insecurity and poverty.
Mr Fothergill added: “Our analysis shows that prices of food have increased drastically since costs were set for the scheme 18 months ago. If the scheme is to help as many people as it can, the vouchers must reflect current inflationary food prices.
“The Government should also shift from an “opt in” to an “opt out” registration system for the vouchers, which would remove any barriers families face when applying online and drive take up.”
Who is eligible for the Healthy Start Vouchers?
If you are on Universal Credit and:
- You're at least 10 weeks pregnant or have at least one child under four-years-old.
- Your family's take-home pay for this period is £408 or less from employment.
- If you get Child Tax Credit and:
- You have at least one child under four-years-old.
- Your family's income is £16,190 or less a year.
What you can do if you can't afford to buy food:
- Contact your council to see if they can offer welfare assistance or a Household Support Fund. Each council runs their own scheme and these funds can help you pay for things like energy bills, food and essential items such as clothes.
- Apply for a cost of living payment which is available for people on certain benefits such as Universal Credit or PIP, or are over State Pension age and receive the Winter Fuel Payment.
- Check you're not missing out on benefit entitlements. If you are on a low income, are sick, disabled, on State Pension and on a low income, a carer, responsible for children, you may be entitled to benefits. Citizens Advice has links to some benefits calculators to see if you're eligible.
- Use a food bank. Google 'Food banks near me' to see where your closest one is. The Trussell Trust is the biggest food bank operator, but there may be one closer to you that is run by a different organisation such as your local church.