Cost of living: Hundreds of thousands of families 'missing out on free food'
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.
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Despite these stark figures, there has 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 many families are not claiming 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 that 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 First Steps Nutrition Trust.
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Vera Zakharov, Local Action Coordinator at Sustain, said: "It is unacceptable that over 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.
"Government must do all it can to promote Healthy Start properly, increase payments in line with inflation, and work toward auto-enrolment to avoid more families missing out.
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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 go?
"Government needs to do what’s right and properly invest in Healthy Start starting with a comprehensive communications campaign to make sure these families so longer miss out on healthy food, milk and vitamins they are entitled to."
Yahoo News has contacted the Department of Health and Social Care for comment.