Footballer Marcus Rashford is calling on health workers to spread the word about free food vouchers for children from low-income households after it emerged that 40% of those who are eligible have yet to sign up.
The government’s Healthy Start scheme enables parents in receipt of a welfare benefit, who have at least one child under four or who have been pregnant for 10 weeks or more, to obtain free food vouchers worth £4.25 weekly which can be exchanged for milk, infant formula, fruit, vegetables and pulses.
The Manchester United forward has drawn on his own experiences of growing up to campaign on child food poverty, most notably forcing the government into a U-turn on free school meals over half-term holidays last year.
He subsequently helped the government draw up Healthy Start, and has launched a range of recipes based on ingredients that the vouchers can be used for with TV chef Tom Kerridge.
In an open letter published in the British Medical Journal, Rashford said: “On a daily basis, healthcare professionals see first-hand the impact that hunger and poor diets have on, not only physical, but mental health and where that can lead.
“You are for many – and for many communities like mine – a lifeline. You provide an avenue to really be heard and to be seen … I would very much appreciate it if you would consider collaborating with us on communicating and educating people about the scheme when possible. A true difference can only be made via a grassroots approach.”
In the letter, Rashford warned that although 57,000 parents have benefited from a scheme, it now appears to be plateauing.
He said: “I’m confident that the majority of these parents can be found in communities just like mine, where I grew up – no internet, no high street, no word of mouth.”
However, nursing and medical leaders said that their impact would be limited unless cuts to health visiting and children and families’ services were reversed.
Research published in September 2020 by the Food Foundation showed that about 14% of UK families with children had experienced food insecurity in the previous six months and could not afford, or access, sufficient food, which had severely affected their physical and mental health.
Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that the scheme increased spending on fruit and vegetables and improved the nutritional value of household shopping, without increasing spend on less healthy foods.
Rashford said he endorsed the government’s national food strategy recommendation to expand Healthy Start, but to enable more families living in poverty to benefit from it, this must be accompanied by a drive to increase awareness among those who are already eligible.
Richard Vautrey, chair of the British Medical Association’s GP committee, said: “Marcus Rashford rightly acknowledges that more needs to be done to ensure greater uptake of the scheme, as 40% of those who are eligible have still not applied, and that includes getting rid of unnecessary bureaucracy which can get in the way and limit access.
“All those in primary care can play a part in the collaborative effort that must be taken to promote this scheme and in doing so, contribute to the narrowing of the unacceptable health inequalities experienced by far too many.
“There is however a particular need to address the significant cuts seen in recent years to health visiting and other children’s and families’ services which are crucial to supporting families with young children.”
Helen Donovan, Royal College of Nursing professional lead for public health, said: “Nursing staff welcome any support in encouraging the children and families they work with to sign up to the Healthy Start scheme.
“We know that eating more nutritious food is essential for growth and development. The government also needs to think about what more it can do, such as urgently tackling the staff shortages in community nursing and health visiting which mean some families don’t see a nurse when they should.”