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Southampton researchers launch review of national food voucher scheme


Researchers are working with the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) to evaluate the Healthy Start scheme in England.


They aim to find out why nearly half of eligible low-income families with young children have not been claiming support for healthy food.


The research team combines expertise from the University of Southampton and City, University of London. It is the first national, independent full evaluation of the scheme.


What is Healthy Start?


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


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


The amount of financial support offered as part of the Healthy Start scheme increased in April 2021 for the first time in ten years. It is hoped this will help families with the cost of living crisis.


“How well an adult eats can often be traced back to the foods they ate as a child,” explains Dr Christina Vogel, Associate Professor in Public Health Nutrition at the University of Southampton.


“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.”


Understanding the barriers


The research team, led by Dr Vogel, will conduct a thorough evaluation of Healthy Start.

They aim to understand barriers to uptake, and assess whether the scheme improves the healthiness of the food families buy and eat. They will also look at whether it improves children’s health and school performance.


This will include a detailed analysis in Southampton, London and Manchester to find out how the scheme is working locally. To do this, they will work closely with local authorities, health and care providers, and other community organisations.


Together with social enterprise ‘Activmob’, the researchers will hear from families, retailers and community members. They will also work with charities The Food Foundation and Tommy’s to make sure findings from the study are relevant to eligible families.


The team at IFS will assess the impact the recent rise in the vouchers’ value has had on the food bought by eligible families across England. They will also investigate how food buying patterns have changed over the 15 years the scheme has been offered.


Recommendations to improve the scheme


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).


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


Dr Vogel 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.”


“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.”