Fresh fruit and veg prescribed to low-income families in UK trial

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Fresh fruit and vegetables are being given out on prescription to low-income families in a trial public health scheme aimed at tackling the growth of poverty-related hunger and health inequalities due to the UK’s cost of living crisis.

About 120 people with chronic disease and mental health conditions living in two of the UK’s poorest neighbourhoods are receiving weekly vouchers to spend on fresh groceries as part of a £250,000 nine-month project.

The vouchers, worth up to £8 a week with an additional £2 for each child in the household, are being given to participants identified by NHS-funded social prescribing staff in two projects, the Bromley by Bow centre in Tower Hamlets and the Beacon Project in Lambeth.

It began last month, amid an increase in food insecurity and evidence that soaring grocery costs were stopping people from buying healthy food – causing a nutritional recession in low income families and encouraging conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension.

Initial reports from participants are positive, from parents who are able to recharge their faltering family diets and fill their fruit bowl to reports of children choosing fruit rather than crisps for a snack.

“It’s made a massive difference to us,” said Asia, a single parent with three children who lives in Tower Hamlets. Before the cost of living crisis, she had been spending £20 a week on fruit and vegetables: family favourites were sweet potato curries, plantain, cabbage, broccoli, kiwifruit, bananas. Then food prices started going through the roof.

“We started eating less, including a lot less fruit and veg,” she said. “One of the hardest things was not being able to leave the fruit bowl out. Bananas would be rationed. How do you tell your kids they are not allowed to eat fruit? You realise crisps and chocolate were actually cheaper.”

She added: “It wasn’t just that we were eating less food we weren’t getting enough protein or getting enough nutrients and vitamin C. It seemed we were constantly falling ill and feeling listless and low on energy.”

In just a few weeks, Asia, who is on universal credit, said the £12 a week vouchers she spent at a fruit and veg stall in Tower Hamlets had boosted her family’s general wellbeing (“the kids seem to have more energy”) and taken pressure off her strained finances.

Healthy food costs more with potatoes and broccoli costing more than six times more per calorie than chocolate and other less healthy foods. In Tower Hamlets, 56% of all children are in poverty. “It’s heartbreaking. Some children are only eating fruit and vegetables when they are at school,” said Asia.

Co-funded by the Alexandra Rose Charity and local public health officials, the hope is the scheme will show how the UK’s diet-related public health crisis could be managed, as well as help tackle its food insecurity problem.

Jonathan Pauling , the chief executive of the charity, said if the scheme was effective, the hope was fruit and veg vouchers would be made routinely available on the NHS. “We hope it will make a healthy diet easier to access for people who are struggling,” he said.

For Pauling the idea is simple: fruit is not only delicious but also an effective medicine. The UK faces a diet-related health crisis that destroys lives and costs the NHS billions. Fruit and veg is a vital, natural elixir: “You can’t process yourself out of this problems with conventional medicine,” he said.

The scheme is based on the Community Eatwell idea promoted by the former government food tsar Henry Dimbleby, which attracted initial ministerial interest but seems to have been killed off after the former health secretary Thérèse Coffey ditched the health inequalities white paper in September.

Prof Sam Everington, a GP in Bromley-by-Bow and chair of the Tower Hamlets NHS clinical commissioning group, said the health service should embrace such schemes. “When I trained over 40 years ago, type 2 diabetes was a disease of elderly people. We are now seeing it in teenagers. Much of it is preventable with a healthy diet and good regular exercise. Fruit and veg should be part of every prescription,” he said.

Dr Chi-Chi Ekhator, the GP lead at the Beacon Project, said the scheme would help patients cutting their fruit and veg consumption as a result of making “heat or eat’” choices. There were dire risks for those who relied on a healthy diet to help manage their chronic diseases. The scheme, she said, “would make a huge difference”.

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