The Mayor of Tower Hamlets John Biggs has joined calls from charities and health groups warning that low-income women and children in over 130,000 households are missing out on £28.6m of free fruit, vegetables and milk due to poor promotion of the Healthy Start voucher scheme nationwide.

Healthy Start vouchers help young and low-income pregnant women, and children, to buy fruits, vegetables, milk and infant formula.

In an open letter to the Health Secretary Matt Hancock, currently in the running to be the next Tory leader and prime minister, charities and health groups warn that families are missing out on millions of pounds worth of vouchers. The letter also calls on this unclaimed money to be reinvested into boosting awareness of the Healthy Starts programme across the country.

Last year families in England and Wales missed out on an estimated £28.6 million worth of vouchers, and figures show that only 55% of those eligible in Tower Hamlets actually claimed their entitlement.

The latest statistics from the Trussell Trust shows that between 1 April 2018 and 31 March 2019, the Trussell Trust’s food bank network distributed 1.6 million three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis, a 19% increase on the previous year. More than half a million of these went to children.

Since the coalition government took power in 2010, the number of uses of Trussell Trust food banks has increased from 41,000 to 1.2 million.

In Tower Hamlets, Mayor Biggs has introduced a multi-million pound Tackling Poverty Fund to support the poorest residents and mitigate the impact of Universal Credit and other Tory cuts to frontline services. The council also continues to offer a range of support to lower income residents including free school meals for primary school pupils and one of the most generous council tax reduction schemes in the country.

Mayor of Tower Hamlets John Biggs said: “Every child deserves a healthy start in life and families are missing out on a voucher scheme which can really make a difference. The Tories have slashed services to the bone and where lifelines exist, like the Healthy Starts Scheme, they’re content to leave people in the dark about extra help they’re entitled to.

“With the Health Secretary in the race to be our next prime minister he’s ideally placed to give this issue the attention it deserves. The Government must now work with local councils to help spread the word about the voucher scheme and improve take-up to make sure as many families and children can access the benefits.

“I hope the Government reinvests the unclaimed £28.6m into making sure no families miss out on this vital support next year.”

Councillor Rachel Blake, Deputy Mayor for Planning, Air Quality and Tackling Poverty, said: “It’s disappointing to hear that only 55% of eligible people in Tower Hamlets are actually claiming their Healthy Starts vouchers. Families are really struggling under the Tory austerity programme with cuts to Universal Credit and other benefits, cuts to local councils and other frontline services.

“These Healthy Start vouchers can make a huge difference and complements the tackling poverty work we’re doing in the borough, including our Tackling Poverty Fund and continuing to invest in Free School Meals.”

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