This section introduces Best Start Foods and the rationale behind its implementation. It also summarises the eligibility criteria for Best Start Foods, aspects of the application process, and the overall evaluation aims relevant to this report.
Best Start Foods: description and background
The Scottish Government is determined that every child should get the best start in life, regardless of their circumstances. A key part of this is ensuring that children eat well and have a healthy weight, because eating patterns in early childhood influence health and happiness in later life. However, the 2019 Scottish Health Survey showed that 30% of children in Scotland were at risk of being overweight or obese, and that food insecurity affects around 13% of families – outcomes which are linked with poverty and deprivation. It is therefore crucial that families on low incomes are given support which enables them to make healthier food choices.
The Social Security powers devolved through the Scotland Act 2016 give the Scottish Parliament responsibility for £2.8 billion of social security expenditure (around 15% of total benefit expenditure in Scotland), enacted though the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018. The Welfare Foods (Scotland) Regulations 2019 were laid in Parliament in May 2019, and Best Start Foods system went live in August 2019, replacing the UK Healthy Start Vouchers in Scotland. Healthy Start Vouchers is managed by the UK Government's Department of Health and Social Care, which continued to deliver Healthy Start Vouchers to Scottish recipients until they transitioned onto the Best Start Foods scheme. This transition period was completed by the end of March 2020.
Best Start Foods is designed to provide financial support for low income families to access nutritious food at the point of need. It is a weekly sum of £4.50 available to pregnant women and families with children aged 1 and 2, while families with children aged under 1 receive a double weekly payment of £9.00 to support both the mother and the child. The payments are made every four weeks via payment card, which can be used like a normal bank card with contactless or Chip & Pin features. It works in all supermarkets or local shops which stock healthy food and that accept bank card payments, and can also be used online. The following items are available to purchase via Best Start Foods:
- Fresh eggs
- Milk – plain cow's milk and first infant formula
- Fruit/vegetables – fresh, frozen or tinned (those with added salt and sugar are excluded)
- Pulses (e.g. peas, lentils and beans) – dried, fresh, frozen or tinned.
To receive Best Start Foods, recipients must meet a range of eligibility criteria. All of those who apply must be resident in Scotland, and they (or their partners) must be pregnant or the main carer of a child aged under 3. Recipients under 18 do not need to be on any benefits to apply for Best Start Foods. However, recipients over 18 (or their partners) must also be receiving certain benefits and, where applicable, an income threshold applies.
To support income maximisation, and to reduce the administrative burden on applicants, recipients can also apply for Best Start Grant and Scottish Child Payment on the same application form.
Applications can be made online, by phone, and by paper form ('application channel'). There is a single application form for Best Start Grant and Best Start Foods that covers the three Best Start Grant Payments and Best Start Foods. Rather than indicating what they wish to apply for on the form, applicants provide details about themselves, their partner, all dependent children, and any details about their pregnancy and expected children. When the application is processed, Social Security Scotland determines which elements of Best Start Grant the client is eligible to receive, and makes a single payment to the client to cover all of these elements. Social Security Scotland will also determine whether the client is eligible for Best Start Foods.
On 9 November 2020, Social Security Scotland began taking applications for Scottish Child Payment. At the beginning of the application process, individuals can choose to make a joint application for Scottish Child Payment, Best Start Grant, and Best Start Foods. If they choose to do this, the applicant completes one application form for all of these benefits.
In terms of processing and the subsequent reporting of official statistics, the joint application can be thought of as two separate applications; one for Best Start Grant and Best Start Foods, and another for Scottish Child Payment.
Social Security Scotland processes each application received and makes a decision whether to approve or deny the application. Decisions for Best Start Grant and Best Start Foods are normally made at the same time. An application will be denied if the client is not eligible to receive any of the Best Start Grant and Best Start Foods payments. An application will be authorised if the client is eligible to receive at least one of the Best Start Grant or Best Start Foods payments. Applicants may also withdraw their application before a decision is made.
Social Security Scotland aims to process the application, make a decision and provide decision letters to the applicant within 21 days of receiving an application. Separate letters for Best Start Grant and Best Start Foods are provided. Applications may take longer to process if copies of documents need to be requested and received from recipients.
Accessibility of Best Start Foods
Social Security Scotland is committed to accessibility. To maximise this, multiple application channels are available: digital, paper and telephone. The digital application process is compatible with assistive technologies and recipients can request phone calls and letters in a variety of formats e.g. in over 100 different languages, using BSL video calls, or in braille, easy read and large print.
The Scottish Government published its approach to evaluating the first wave of devolved social security benefits in November 2019.
The purpose of this evaluation is to provide learning about the overall implementation of Best Start Foods and the extent to which its immediate and short-term outcomes have been met. In doing so, it can also assess progress towards Best Start Foods' medium-term outcomes, and its likely contribution to long-term government impacts for children, such as reduced health inequalities. However, the latter, long-term impacts will also be affected by Scottish Government interventions outwith social security, designed to support children and their families. As such, they will not only be attributable to Best Start Foods.
Specifically, the evaluation objectives are to:
1. Evaluate the extent to which Best Start Foods achieved its policy outcomes.
2. Assess the likely contribution of Best Start Foods to wider long-term government outcomes for children and their families.
3. Discuss implications for future policy development.
The findings will form the policy evaluation of Best Start Foods, and will set the groundwork for policy improvements. Please note that the Best Start Foods evaluation is one of a series on low income benefits administered by Social Security Scotland, including an evaluation of Best Start Grant.
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