Footballer Marcus Rashford is calling on healthcare professionals to spread the word about a little-known government scheme that helps under-privileged children have a nutritious start in life.
The campaigner, 23, hit the headlines in summer, 2020, when he launched the #endchildfoodpoverty campaign, helping around 1.3 million children in England have access to free school meals during the holidays.
The England international footballer, who also formed the Child Food Poverty Taskforce, vowed to continue campaigning after he was appointed an MBE that October.
In an open letter, published in The BMJ, the athlete is now asking medics and other healthcare professionals to speak to patients about the Healthy Start scheme, which offers eligible candidates vouchers or payments towards nutritious food.
The Child Food Poverty Taskforce, "with help from the NHS", has developed a calculator that helps the public or a healthcare professional determine whether someone is eligible for the scheme.
With a young person's diet influencing their physical, mental and future health, Rashford – who relied on free school meals himself – said: "All children deserve a chance."
Addressing healthcare professionals, Rashford wrote: "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."
With "nothing great ever achieved alone", Rashford has asked healthcare professionals to encourage those they come into contact with to sign up to the Healthy Start scheme.
This enables pregnant women and people with children under four, who are on welfare benefits, to receive free vouchers and payments every four weeks to spend on cow's milk or infant formula.
They can also be put towards pulses – whether fresh, dried or tinned; fruit and vegetables – fresh, frozen or tinned; and supplements.
In September, 2020, a Food Foundation study found 14% of UK families with children had experienced food insecurity in the past six months, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
"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 ($4.31) to £4.25 ($5.91) per week in England, Wales and Northern Ireland from April, 2021," wrote Rashford.
Scientists from the University of Manchester previously reported the Healthy Start scheme "increased spending on fruit and vegetables" and "improved the nutrient composition of households' shopping baskets".
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"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," wrote Rashford.
"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."
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The Child Food Poverty Taskforce has been actively promoting the Healthy Start scheme since November, 2020.
"While we have seen 57,000 more parents benefit from the scheme as a result, I'm concerned we are plateauing," wrote Rashford.
"More than 40% of those eligible for the vouchers are still not registered for the scheme and I'm confident 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.
"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."
Rashford has argued healthcare professionals see the impact of a poor diet "firsthand".
"You are for many, and for many communities like mine, a lifeline," he wrote. "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."
Rashford supports calls to expand the scheme, "but this must go hand in hand with increasing awareness".
Signing off "with respect and endless admiration", Rashford wrote: "In conclusion, and not to beat around the bush, we need you."
Anna Taylor, from The Food Foundation, added: "Healthy Start is a great programme, but too many people who could benefit don't even know about it.
"We need to do all we can to make sure all those eligible can use it to help them afford to eat more fruit and veg."
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