Background on eligibility and uptake

The Healthy Start scheme is available in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to help those receiving certain income-related benefits who are more than 10 weeks pregnant or have a child under four to buy healthy food and milk.

Scotland has its own similar scheme called Best Start Foods.

The Healthy Start paper voucher scheme came to an end on 31 March 2022, following a transition to a digital prepaid card scheme. 

In April 2024, 366,309 people were enrolled on the scheme across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, out of a total of 587,096 people who were eligible (meaning uptake for the scheme was 62.4% across England, Wales and Northern Ireland). In March 2024 the Government made a written ministerial statement to Parliament noting that due to a missing data feed, published statistics on the number of eligible Healthy Start beneficiaries had been underestimated from July 2023 to February 2024. This in turn had led to an overstated estimate of the uptake percentage for the same period (HCWS389, Healthy Start Uptake Date, 26 March 2024).

Available data on eligibility and uptake for the scheme can be found on the Healthy Start website.

In December 2022, over 100 organisations, including charities, Royal Colleges, Directors of Public Health, and food partnerships, wrote to the Ministers, and the Chief Executive of NHS Business Services Authority (NHS BSA), which runs the scheme, calling for action to address digitisation issues leading to delayed and rejected applications for some families. (see Healthy Start coalition letter (PDF)). A PQ response in October 2023 noted a NHS BSA estimate that as of 15 October 2023 there were 20,500 households which previously were in receipt of paper vouchers which have not successfully applied to the NHS Healthy Start prepaid card scheme. This figure would also include households that are no longer eligible to apply for the Healthy Start scheme (PQ291335, 20 October 2023).

Emma Lewell-Buck, alongside a number of Members from across Parliament, have called on the Government to change from an “opt in” to an “opt out” registration system, where families eligible for the Healthy Start scheme are automatically enrolled (see Healthy Start Scheme (Take-Up) (No. 2) 2023-24, which followed a similar Bill in the previous session from the former MP for Stretford and Urmston, the Healthy Start Scheme (Take-Up) Bill 2022-23).

The Local Government Association (LGA) has also called on the Government to:

  • Extend Healthy Start to children up to the age of five, to close the current gap in support between healthy start and free school meals. 
  • Invest in an awareness raising campaign to promote uptake of the vouchers amongst eligible families, funded by underspend from the scheme.

The LGA has also been reported to have called for an increase in the value of the Healthy Start scheme by 20%, to compensate for food inflation (see the Independent, Councils call for 20% uplift for Healthy Start to meet food inflation, 11 November 2024). There was a Westminster Hall debate on the Healthy Start scheme and the cost of living on 23 May 2023.

In June 2023 Emma Lewell-Buck wrote to the then Healthy Secretary, Steven Barclay, urging the Government to auto-enrol those already eligible for NHS Healthy Start onto the scheme. Her letter was co-signed by a number of parliamentarians and organisations that had backed her Bill. The Member published this, and the Government’s response on her website (Response from the Government to my Healthy Start Scheme letter, website of Emma Lewell-Buck MP (

This response from the Minister, Neil O’Brien, in July 2023, noted that all eligible families cannot be automatically enrolled in the Healthy Start scheme. The Government’s letter, and a subsequent PQ response, explained that this is because the prepaid card is a financial product and cannot be issued without the applicant accepting the terms and conditions of the card at the point of application (see PQ19623, 25 March 2024).

A further PQ response (PQ19624, 26 March 2024) noted that the Department of Health and Social Care is working with the NHS BSA and the DWP, “in order for the NHS BSA to receive the personal data held by the DWP for those potentially eligible citizens, as soon as possible.” The Minister, Andrea Leadsom, said that “the NHS BSA will use this data to reach out to those eligible, who are not currently in receipt of Healthy Start, to encourage them to apply for the Healthy Start scheme.”

The value of Healthy Start payments

In 2020 Part One of the National Food Strategy (PDF) recommended that Healthy Start vouchers should be increased to £4.25 a week. In response, the Government increased the value of Healthy Start vouchers from £3.10 to £4.25 per week (from April 2021). The value of Healthy Start support had been increased to £3.10 in 2009, from the original value of £2.80 when first introduced in 2006. Healthy Start replaced the longstanding Welfare Food Scheme (which was brought in during the Second World War to help combat food shortages).

Families on the scheme currently receive:

  • £4.25 per week for each child between one and four years old
  • £4.25 per week for each week of a pregnancy (from the 10th week of pregnancy)
  • £8.50 per week for each child aged up to one year old (equivalent to two vouchers).

Like the Welfare Food Scheme before it, Healthy Start provides people who qualify with help to buy milk and infant formula, while it extended help to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. Free vitamin supplements are also an important part of the scheme.

A PQ response in March 2024 (PQ19621, 27 March 2024) noted the cost of operating the Healthy Start scheme was £78,761,339 in 2022/23.

Healthy Start legislation

In 2003 the Government passed primary legislation, the Health and Social Care (Community Health and Standards) Act 2003 (section 185), to enable the new Healthy Start scheme to be set up under regulations. Subsequent regulations were passed to implement scheme, including the Healthy Start Scheme and Welfare Food (Amendment) Regulations SI 2005/3262 and the Healthy Start Scheme and Welfare Food (Amendment) Regulations SI 2006/589. In particular, the 2005 Regulations set out the rules governing the Healthy Start scheme.

Subsequent regulations have been made, uprating the value of vouchers, and making other changes. Since 2010, some amending regulations relate to the rules around eligibility, for example the Healthy Start Scheme and Welfare Food (Amendment) Regulations 2016 SI 2016/985 and the Healthy Start Scheme and Welfare Food (Amendment) (England and Wales) Regulations 2019 SI 2019/909 granted eligibility to Healthy Start benefits to certain Universal Credit and Pension Credit claimants.

Other regulations clarify or extend the types of food included in the scheme. For example, The Healthy Start Scheme and Welfare Food (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2020 SI 2020/267 expanded the foods that can be purchased through the scheme to include pulses and canned fruit and vegetables, but not those to which fat, salt, sugar or flavouring have been added.

Commons Library Briefing papers

Briefing for Westminster Hall debate on information on support available for parents and carers of infants (March 2-2024)

Briefing for Westminster Hall debate on Healthy Start Scheme and increases in the cost of living (May 2023)

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