Over 300,000 families could miss out on free food scheme due to problems with digital switchover

As the cost of living crisis deepens, more than 300,000* families in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are set to miss out on a free food scheme they are eligible for as a digital switchover has gone badly wrong. 

Fresh analysis from Sustain shows that 338,656 families who are pregnant/have small children and eligible for Healthy Start vouchers for fruit, veg and milk have not claimed the digital cards, which they will need when the paper vouchers stop on 31 March. The last date to apply for the digital card so as not to miss out on any payments is Thursday 10 March. 

But the Healthy Start Facebook page has been flooded with complaints: the online application form is rejecting eligible families, cards are difficult to activate, the helpline isn’t working and can cost up to 55p. 

The Sustain analysis also shows that more than £63.5 million in vouchers went unclaimed last year because of low awareness of the scheme* – and now some public health teams, aware of the scheme’s problems, have stopped promoting it to families for fear they will be put off by all the difficulties with digitisation.

A large coalition of charities, led by Sustain and The Food Foundation, and including Royal College of Midwives and Royal Society of Public Health, is sending a letter to Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Sajid Javid today (10 March) asking him to extend the paper vouchers while the digital scheme is fixed. 

Sustain campaigner Sofia Parente said: “Every year millions of pounds of Healthy Start vouchers go unclaimed and families miss out on free fruit, vegetables and milk. We welcomed the digitisation of the service as it was supposed to make it easier to apply and use, as well as reduce stigma. But the opposite has happened. Eligible families are being rejected, cards are failing at tills and calls to the helpline go unanswered. The Government needs to extend the paper vouchers until the digital scheme is working, otherwise families exposed to increasing food prices will miss out.

Zoe McIntyre, Project Manager of Children’s Right2Food, at The Food Foundation said: “There is no doubt that digitisation of Healthy Start can bring many benefits, but it must be done well, and with a clear understanding of the circumstances of those it is targeting. So many organisations, retailers, and individuals – including Marcus Rashford – have made huge efforts to tackle the issue of low uptake of this Government scheme to make sure low-income young families struggling to afford a healthy diet can get the support they need. So it’s really heart-breaking to hear how many families have been hindered by the digital switchover, rather than helped by it. At this challenging time of rising food prices and the rising cost of living, Government really needs to remedy these issues immediately.” 

The analysis also shows that the average take-up of the voucher scheme in England in 2021 was 54%.


*Calculated from Healthy Start uptake data for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which states that as of 27 February 2022, the number of eligible beneficiaries was 338,656. As the Healthy Start website states, this does not include those in receipt of the Healthy Start card and we have concluded that these beneficiaries have not been yet transferred to digital cards. We await further business service information from the NHS BSA.

Please contact:
Sustain: Orla Delargy [email protected]
The Food Foundation: [email protected]

Twitter: @Food_Foundation
Instagram: food.foundation

About Healthy Start

The Healthy Start scheme provides funds to support pregnant women or those with children aged under 4. If you live in England, Wales or Northern Ireland you may be able to claim free vouchers, or payments every 4 weeks to spend on:

  • Fresh, frozen or tinned fruit and vegetables
  • Fresh, dried, and tinned pulses
  • Cow’s milk
  • Infant formula milk
  • You can also get free Healthy Start vitamins.

The current paper voucher scheme is due to be phased out in March 2022 when it will be replaced by a prepaid card. More information is available via the NHS BSA's website. 

About The Food Foundation  
The Food Foundation is a charity working to influence food policy and business practice, shaping a sustainable food system which makes healthy diets affordable and accessible for all. We work in partnership with researchers, campaigners, community bodies, industry, investors, government and citizens to galvanise the UK’s diverse agents of change, using surprising and inventive ideas to drive fundamental shifts in our food system. These efforts are based on the continual re-evaluation of opportunities for action, building and synthesising strong evidence, convening powerful coalitions, harnessing citizens’ voices and delivering impactful communications. 

Registered Charity Number 1187611


I am looking for...