Tesco free fruit

Up to 50% of eligible families may have been unable to access the government’s Healthy Start scheme in the past year, according to new figures from campaign group Sustain.

The much-criticised scheme has been increasingly beset with problems since digital cards were introduced earlier this year, with eligible families reporting difficulties applying for and using the cards, as well as long waits to get through to a helpline.

In March 2022, the Department of Health & Social Care ceased publishing scheme uptake and eligibility data per local authority area.

However, through freedom of information requests and DWP data, Sustain estimated a “shockingly low” uptake of 53% in England and 58% in Wales.

It also estimated an additional 14,863 households were eligible for Healthy Start in England and Wales in August compared with March 2022 with the number expected to have risen significantly since then because of the cost of living crisis.

The claims are the latest controversy to hit the scheme. In March, The Grocer reported how families struggling with huge cost of living increases, including soaring food prices, claimed to have been left humiliated at the tills of major retailers due to breakdowns in a new digital system being introduced to replace the scheme’s paper vouchers.

At the time it was estimated nearly 350,000 families who were expecting babies or had small children, entitling them to vouchers for fruit, veg and milk, had not switched to the digital cards.

“Frontline health and social care professionals working with families tell us that the number of families in desperate circumstances is rising, but they don’t have the data they need to support them,” said Vera Zakharov, sustainable food places local action co-ordinator at Sustain.

“Healthy Start is a nutritional safety net for pregnant mothers and young children, and is an important part of the government’s support package for low-income families,” she added. “The scheme should be expanded to help families through the current cost of living crisis, not limited by technical problems. We ask that ministers act without delay.”