England footballer and food poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford has directly appealed to health care professionals (HCPs) to help increase the uptake of free food vouchers to children in poverty. In an open letter, published in the British Medical Journal, the Manchester United striker warned that after a promising start, the Healthy Start scheme he helped draw up with the Government may be ‘plateauing’.
‘More than 40% of those eligible for the vouchers are still not registered for the scheme, and I’m confident that the majority of these parents can be found in communities just like mine, where I grew up—no internet, no high street, no word of mouth,’ said Rashford.
The Healthy Start scheme entitles families in receipt of a welfare benefit, who have at least one child under four or who have been pregnant for 10 weeks or more, to vouchers worth £4.25 weekly which can be exchanged for milk, infant formula, fruit, vegetables and pulses.
Research by the Food Foundation published in September 2020 showed that 14% of UK families with children had experienced food insecurity in the previous six months, with severe knock-on effects on both physical and mental health.
In a direct appeal to HCPs, Rashford wrote: ‘On a daily basis, healthcare professionals see firsthand the impact that hunger and poor diets have on physical and mental health and where that can lead. The COVID Realities research programme has documented the physical and mental health impacts that living with food insecurity has on families.
‘You are for many—and for many communities like mine—a lifeline. You provide an avenue to really be heard and to be seen… I would very much appreciate it if you would consider collaborating with us on communicating and educating people about the scheme when possible.’
His call was welcomed by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN). ‘Nursing staff welcome any support in encouraging the children and families they work with to sign up to the Healthy Start scheme,’ said Helen Donovan, Royal College of Nursing professional lead for public health.
‘We know that eating more nutritious food is essential for growth and development. The government also needs to think about what more it can do, such as urgently tackling the staff shortages in community nursing and health visiting which mean some families don’t see a nurse when they should.’