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The Healthy Start scheme in England “is a lifeline for families but many are missing out”: a rapid qualitative analysis

Barrett, M. ORCID: 0000-0002-1981-1976, Spires, M. ORCID: 0000-0002-1767-2511 & Vogel, C. ORCID: 0000-0002-3897-3786 (2024). The Healthy Start scheme in England “is a lifeline for families but many are missing out”: a rapid qualitative analysis. BMC Medicine, 22(1), article number 177. doi: 10.1186/s12916-024-03380-5



Healthy Start (HS) is a government scheme in England, Wales and Northern Ireland that offers a financial payment card and free vitamins to families experiencing low income. Pregnant women and families with children < 4 years can use the HS card to buy fruit, vegetables, cow’s milk, infant formula and pulses. HS was fully digitalised in March 2022. While digitalisation has improved the user experience for many families, in the context of the cost-of-living crisis and increasing dietary inequalities, it is important to understand why HS is not reaching more families. This study aimed to (i) assess the perceptions and experiences of HS from stakeholders across the system including those who promote, implement and are eligible for HS, and (ii) identify recommendations to improve the scheme’s effectiveness and uptake.


The study design was a post-implementation rapid qualitative evaluation using stakeholder interviews. Data were collected between January and June 2023 via semi‐structured interviews (50% online; 50% in person) with 112 stakeholders, including parents (n = 59), non‐government organisations (n = 13), retailers (n = 11) and health and community professionals (n = 29) at national and local levels. Findings were confirmed by a sub-sample of participants.


Six core themes cut across stakeholders’ perceptions and experiences, and stakeholders collectively outlined seven recommendations they felt could be acted upon to maximise uptake and efficiency of HS, with actions at both national and local levels. A novel finding from this study is that raising awareness about HS alone is unlikely to result automatically or universally in higher uptake rate. Recommendations include: continuing to provide this scheme that is universally valued; the need for many families to be provided with a helping hand to successfully complete the application; reframing of the scheme as a child’s right to food and development to ensure inclusivity; improved leadership, coordination and accountability at both national and local levels.


HS provides benefits for child development and family wellbeing. The study’s recommendations should be actioned by national and local governments to enable all families eligible for the scheme to benefit from this nutritional safety net.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated in a credit line to the data.
Publisher Keywords: Food subsidy programme, Healthy Start, Rapid qualitative analysis, Systems approach, Dietary inequalities
Departments: School of Health & Psychological Sciences
School of Health & Psychological Sciences > Healthcare Services Research & Management
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