Author: Dr Naomi Maynard
The Healthy Start Scheme is a lifeline for so many pregnant women and families with young children, providing access to good food: fruit, vegetables, milk and vitamins which are so important to give your child the best start in life. It certainly was for me, when back in 2014 my husband and I welcomed our first son whilst we were both students: the weekly benefit meant our family could have fresh fruits and vegetables at a time when money was tight.
But so many people who could be a part of this scheme are missing out – in Liverpool this figure is close to 1 in 3 eligible people aren’t benefiting from the scheme – meaning last year nearly three quarters of a million pounds, set aside for the Healthy Start Scheme, went unclaimed. Many families we were interacting with at children’s centers and in our community food sector told us they simply did not know about the scheme, or were unsure how to apply.
Feeding Liverpool, therefore chose to make improving the uptake of Healthy Start a priority for our food alliance this year. We have focused our efforts on two interconnected strands: developing a network of Community Healthy Start Champions, and working with children’s centers, parents, health visitors and our public health colleagues to develop a series of national and local recommendations, which if enacted would significantly improve both the uptake and the reach of the Healthy Start Scheme.
Community Healthy Start Champions
In May, we ran an online and in person training session about Healthy Start for volunteers and staff from community food spaces and emergency food providers. Starting with the basics of explaining the scheme before moving onto looking at the three ways the voluntary food sector can support in our mission of increasing awareness and uptake:
- Advertising the Health Start Scheme
Each of our community food spaces committed to advertising Healthy Start. We provided them with two of the NHS’s Easy Read booklets to help us explain to members of food clubs, clients at foodbanks, what the Healthy Start Scheme is, and a bunch of stickers to put on fridges and freezers. Public Health have also committed to funding Healthy Start pop up banners for 30 of our venues.
- Supporting members to sign up
The digitalisation of the Healthy Start scheme in March has left many worried that those who are struggling with digital access may be excluded. Where community spaces can, we have encouraged them to use their wifi and gadgets to support members to sign up online, and have a Community Healthy Start Champion available to support people to sign up.
- Accepting Healthy Start cards at community food spaces
If a community space can accept debit card payments, and offers at least one of the Healthy Start eligible items (frozen, tinned or fresh fruit or vegetables, milk or lentils) they can accept the new Healthy Start cards. We have worked with community groups who didn’t have ‘sum -up’ machines, or the equivalent to purchase one (with a generous offer from Feeding Britain to support this where needed). We then spent time with the different models of community food spaces to work out how integrating the cards could work for them. Our largest community food space network in Liverpool, is the Your Local Pantry network with 14 pantries in the city. They have been piloting a split payment approach – where a member can put 50% of their usual membership cost onto their Healthy Start card and pay the remainder via cash and card. So far this is going well!
It is early days but the signs are encouraging, with our 80 new Community Healthy Start Champions completing their training and beginning to put into practice what they have learnt whilst acting as ambassadors for the scheme in their own community venues.
Our local and national recommendations
The second element of our work has involved engaging with and listening to the many people (or ‘stakeholders’) connected with the scheme: parents, children’s centre staff, midwives, GP’s and public health colleagues.
This work has culminated in a series of recommendations about how the scheme could be improved, ranging from national asks including expanding the eligibility of the scheme so more families can be supported, to the need for a national communications campaign. Last week our MP Ian Byrne took our concerns to a parliamentary session with Kate Green MP – lobbying for changes to these schemes.
Surely investing in and improving Healthy Start is an easy cost-of-living-crisis win, getting support through an established infrastructure to some of the households who need it the most?
More locally we have identified the need for a cross-sector Healthy Start working group, connecting parts of the system and developed more strategic local communications – alongside a series of practical actions we can each take to ensure pregnant women and families know about Healthy Start (such as this summer when we sent out 10,000 Healthy Start flyers via the Holiday Activities and Food network).
Our reports go into details about what we have learnt and our next steps – please do take a read and use these as conversations starters with your public health and children’s services teams about how together you can work to ensure everyone who is eligible is able to access the scheme.