More than 130,000 poor households are missing out on free food while the government “wastes time fighting over Brexit”, a coalition of 26 charities and health groups has warned.
In a letter to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, passed to HuffPost UK, the charities say that in 2018 families failed to access £28.6m of free fruit, vegetables and milk they were entitled to via ‘Healthy Start’ vouchers because ministers spent no money promoting the scheme.
By contrast, the government has spent £1.5bn preparing for a no-deal Brexit - something which MPs have repeatedly rejected.
The group, which includes Trussell Trust, Sustain, the Royal Society for Public Health and the Royal College of Midwives, have made the call as queues continue to grow at foodbanks all over the country.
The vouchers should be targeted at families that rely on benefits like Universal Credit and are worth up to £900 per child over their first four years of life and add at least £3.10 to a family shop per-child per-week.
Take-up of the vouchers in England and Wales was just 64% of those available in 2018, meaning 135,000 households missed out while no government cash was handed to health providers to push the scheme or support parents in claiming the vouchers.
Kath Dalmeny, chief executive of Sustain, blamed Brexit paralysis for the oversight.
She said: “While the government wastes time fighting over Brexit, they have failed to support over 4.1 million children in the UK living in households in poverty and struggling to afford the government’s recommended diet.
“Money has been set aside to support low income and young families, but the Healthy Start voucher scheme for fruit, vegetables and milk has not being properly managed or promoted. Using just a fraction of the budget to publicise the vouchers could make all the difference. We need the government to act now.”
The vouchers could buy two litres of semi-skimmed milk, 1kg carrots, 900g frozen peas and 4 apples at a typical discount supermarket.
Over the first four years of a child’s life this is equivalent to 1,090 pints of milk,
1,100 apples, 218kg of carrots and 143kg of peas.
Shirley Cramer, CBE, chief executive of the Royal Society of Public Health, said the scheme has “great potential to help combat the
rising rates of childhood obesity” but the government was failing.
She added: “We know that healthy food is three times more expensive
than unhealthy food; the scheme can help those at the greatest disadvantage in the most deprived areas.
“It establishes eating patterns, forms healthy habits for life and shows
children what food is good for them. We must equip parents to safeguard the health of their children and the next generation.”
Using information from the government’s Health Start Issuing Unit, the charities have calculated the amount of unclaimed food by region in 2018:
- East Midlands £2,234,459
- East of England £2,822,551
- London £4,565,315
- North East £1,317,505
- North West £4,002,211
- South East £3,789,252
- South West £1,846,999
- Wales £1,799,983
- West Midlands £3,316,045
- Yorkshire and the Humber £2,871,900
The letter adds that the government must fund a programme to ensure that midwives, health visitors and GPs to actively help all eligible pregnant women and new parents claim the vouchers.
The cash saved from the unclaimed vouchers of 2018 could fund this, the group says.
HuffPost UK has contacted the Department for Health and Social Care for comment.