Marcus Rashford writes an open letter to health professionals
I have always been a big advocate for collaboration and have always been driven by the power of togetherness. I can only guess that this stems from the community I had wrapped around me as a child, and from what I have learnt as a team athlete.
It is evidently clear in both environments that nothing great is ever achieved alone.
It’s for this reason that I am calling on healthcare professionals to ask for your support in our mission to encourage as many people as possible, who are eligible, to sign up to the government’s Healthy Start scheme.
On the back of what has been an indescribable 18 months, I think I speak on behalf of every single member of the British public when I say you are the true superheroes of our time. Money, fame, popularity has proved worthless throughout this pandemic, and we are all eternally grateful to your selfless and tireless acts. If it was hard for us watching, I can’t imagine what you were experiencing on the inside.
In September 2020, research by the Food Foundation found that around 14% of UK families with children experienced food insecurity in the past six months and could not afford or access sufficient food. In November 2020, I welcomed the government’s investment into the Healthy Start scheme, specifically the increase in the value of Healthy Start vouchers from £3.10 to £4.25 per week in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland from April 2021. The scheme has proven benefits in improving access to healthy food for pregnant women and children under the age of 4 living on low incomes. Research has found that the scheme increased spending on fruit and vegetables and improved the nutrient composition of families’ shopping, with no offsetting changes in spending on other foodstuffs.
To cover the period before the increase in the value of the vouchers came into effect in April 2021, all major supermarkets on the Child Food Poverty Taskforce collectively increased the value of these vouchers in store to cater for the increased cost of food and the impact of covid-19 on household stability.
In April 2021, I also launched Full Time Meals alongside chef Tom Kerridge. We have been developing recipes to the value of these vouchers, with an emphasis on stored goods with a longer shelf life, and on cooking food with limited equipment. The aim is for all children, regardless of their background, to find confidence in the kitchen and learn how to cook—a life skill that will benefit them in their adult life. Secondary to this, the project was developed to reduce some of the stigma around food voucher use.
Since November 2020, members of the Child Food Poverty Taskforce have used their channels and platforms to communicate about the Healthy Start scheme and to tell people how to access it, with the hope that we will be able to reach the majority of those most in need. While we have seen 57 000 more parents benefit from the scheme as a result, I’m concerned we are 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.
Long term, sustainable change can only come when communities work towards a common goal. No child deserves to be starting life 20 yards behind any other child from the day they are born, just because of where they are born and the circumstances they are born into.
All children deserve a chance.
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.
Healthcare professionals are in a position to highlight the Healthy Start scheme to eligible parents, and I would very much appreciate it if you would consider collaborating with us on communicating and educating people about the scheme when possible. A true difference can only be made via a grassroots approach so we have developed, with help from the NHS, a simple to use calculator to determine eligibility, which we would love for you to use.
The National Food Strategy, published on 15 July 2021, recommended an expansion of Healthy Start to allow more families living in poverty to benefit from it. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health also wants to see the Healthy Start voucher scheme expand. I wholeheartedly support this recommendation, but this must go hand in hand with increasing awareness of the scheme, and guaranteeing that all children get the best start in life.
In conclusion, and not to beat around the bush, we need you—every single one of you—to help us reach those most in need in our communities, especially given the planned digitisation of the scheme this autumn, which will disproportionately disadvantage those without easy access to the internet.
With respect and endless admiration,
Marcus Rashford is an England International footballer and child food poverty campaigner from South Manchester, UK. In the summer of 2020, Marcus began a campaign, named #endchildfoodpoverty, that would see 1.7 million vulnerable children supported via a £520M government investment, in a quest to eradicate child hunger from across the UK. Marcus has formed a Child Food Poverty Taskforce and launched “Full Time Meals.”
Competing interests: none declared.