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The University of Southampton

Southampton researchers launch review of food voucher scheme for low-income families

Published: 27 October 2022
Mother and child preparing food
Healthy Start gives low-income families with young children extra financial support

Researchers from University of Southampton and City, University of London are working with the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) to undertake the first national, independent full evaluation of the Healthy Start scheme in England.

Healthy Start was first offered in 2006 and gives low-income families with young children extra financial support to buy fruits, vegetables, beans and pulses, milk and infant formula.

Dr Vogel from the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Centre at the University of Southampton, said: “At a time when every pound counts, our research team will be finding out why some people who can claim these funds don’t, what it is like to use the new payment card, and what effect this extra support has on the foods families buy and eat.”

Before the scheme went digital in autumn last year, nearly half of eligible families were not taking up the support on offer.

The research team, led by Dr Christina Vogel, Associate Professor in Public Health Nutrition, will conduct a thorough evaluation of the Healthy Start scheme to understand barriers to uptake and assess whether the scheme improves the purchasing and dietary patterns of families, and leads to better health and education outcomes among recipient children.

Dr Vogel added: “We will be hearing from mums, dads and professionals so sound recommendations to make the scheme better can be found.”

The project is funded by an award of over £850,000, for the next two and a half years, by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) who is the research partner of the NHS, public health and social care.

Healthy Start logo
NHS Healthy Start Scheme Credit: NHS

Cost of Living Crisis

The amount of financial support offered as part of the Healthy Start scheme increased in April 2021 for the first time in ten years.

The team at IFS will assess the impact this change in value has had on the food bought by eligible families across England and how food buying patterns have changed over the 15 years the scheme has been offered.   

Dr Britta Augsburg, Associate Director at IFS, said: “Rising food costs and the cost of living crisis are making it even harder for parents on low incomes to provide their children with a healthy diet, which is crucial for future wellbeing and school performance.

“Understanding how effective the government's Healthy Start scheme is in supporting these parents is therefore all the more important.”

Young mother looking sad while sat with child
The research will be a detailed analysis in three areas of the country

Working with organisations, local communities and families

An integral part of the research is a detailed analysis in three areas of the country: Southampton, London and Manchester.

The research team are working closely with local authorities, health and care providers and other community organisations to find out how the Healthy Start scheme is working locally.

The study team and social enterprise ‘Activmob’ will listen to stories from families, retailers and community members to uncover what is working well and ways people think local systems could be changed to help families access the basics of a healthy diet.   

Two charities, ‘The Food Foundation’ and ‘Tommy’s’, will also be working with the research team to make sure findings from the study are relevant to the wide-ranging experiences of families eligible for the Healthy Start scheme across England.

Young boy eating unhealthy food
The team will speak to families, retailers and communities

The challenge of providing a healthy diet

“How well an adult eats can often be traced back to the foods they ate as a child”, Dr Vogel added.

“But the high cost of healthy foods, compared to unhealthy, processed foods makes providing a healthy diet a real challenge for many low-income families.

“Our mission in this evaluation is to understand the diverse reasons why some eligible families are not accessing their Healthy Start funds and unpick exactly what the barriers are.”

The findings and solutions families suggest will be shared with the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) and local authorities to help improve the system.

Dr Vogel said: “It’s important that families can benefit from an improved scheme which will make it easier for them to get the extra support that is on offer.”


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