By Jason Deans
Lenka is the first person visitors come into contact with at North Portslade Children’s Centre (NPCC). The local council-funded centre is a welcoming, bustling hub situated in a residential cul de sac in the lee of the South Downs below Devil’s Dyke, which provides parents of young children with health services, advice and support, and a local community space for those with pre-schoolers.
As receptionist and administrator, Lenka’s job encompasses everything from fielding phone calls, dealing with suppliers, organising midwife appointments and all other admin for the centre.
She also plays a vital role in getting the word out about Healthy Start Vouchers, an NHS scheme to help improve the diet of pregnant women on low incomes and children under the age of four with parents on benefits and tax credits.
The scheme offers those eligible a free weekly voucher to spend on milk, fresh and frozen fruit and vegetables, plain milk, and infant formula milk at participating shops. There are also separate coupons for vitamins, which can be collected from the children’s centre.
A success story
Lenka and her colleagues at NPCC must be doing something right. Across the Brighton & Hove local authority area as a whole, 3 in 10 eligible households are missing out on healthy start vouchers. But in NPCC’s postcode area, BN41, a strip running from Shoreham Harbour and Fishersgate on the coast up through Portslade and Mile Oak to Devil’s Dyke, take up of the vouchers is more than 80%.
Asked to explain the secret of NPCC’s success in communicating to local people that they may be eligible for healthy start vouchers, Lenka is keen to stress “it’s a team thing”. She says: “Obviously we have midwives, health visitors, community nursery nurses and our early years educators that visit families and give out information about healthy start as well.”
A team effort
Others helping promote healthy start to people who visit NPCC include early years educators Lin and Naz, community nursery nurses Caroline and Nicole, community midwife Dilly, group support worker Sandra and the health visiting team.
However, Lenka herself also plays a key role in the care and attention she gives to creating displays to promote the Healthy Start scheme to visitors to the centre and in discussing with them whether they are eligible for the vouchers.
Lenka makes the displays by adapting materials she has been sent by the Healthy Start scheme or found for herself on its website, using her computer software to enlarge images of milk bottles, bunches of bananas and carrots to help illustrate the healthy eating message.
In Lenka’s reception area there are separate displays promoting the Healthy Start and vitamin vouchers, with another larger one that is permanently on show in the NPCC’s training room. Their main purpose is to attract the attention of visitors who may not know they are eligible for the vouchers and act as a conversation starter on the subject with NPCC staff. Lenka also keeps a stock of Healthy Start leaflets to hand out.
Starting a conversation
Lenka says: “If anyone comes into reception and looks at [the display] and says ‘oh, do you think I can be entitled?’… I always think well take the leaflet, get somebody to sign it, fill it out and then send it. You never know you might be lucky, you might be actually entitled to it.
“I don’t lead them into [a conversation] … nine times out of 10 sitting on reception, people kind of go ‘ooh’, point at it, so I let them have a little chat about it and I then will say ‘do you mind me just mentioning this?’.
“It is a discussion that I have pretty much every week about, you know, ‘healthy start – here’s a leaflet’. I’ve had to get some more booklets from our health visiting team as well, which they’ve just sent over.”
She adds: “We talk about it in the healthy child clinic as well, because we have a health visitor and a community nursery nurse that comes to that. We did something very recently in our baby group where we kind of highlighted it to the families and the baby group saying ‘do you know you can potentially be eligible for this?’. We gave out some leaflets as well.
“And then just generally in the groups because [the display] is up in the training room, it kind of starts a conversation. Having it up on the display, if any families aren’t aware of [Healthy Start], then it highlights it to them.”
Why it matters
The Healthy Start scheme provides pregnant women and one to four year-old children who qualify for the means-tested benefit with £3.10 per week, delivered as a paper voucher every four weeks. Children under one year old get £6.20 a week. Women and children getting the food vouchers also get coupons for vitamins designed for pregnant and breast-feeding women and growing children.
“I think it’s just all about healthy eating, making sure that they’re actually getting their fruit and veg,” says Lenka. “And making sure they’re getting the right vitamins while they’re pregnant and then once they have the baby, that the baby is getting the right vitamins as well.”
The work Lenka and her NPCC colleagues do to make sure everyone who visits the centre is aware of the Healthy Start scheme is important and commendable. But as Lenka points out, it would be better if there was more joined up thinking across the health and benefits systems, so that people were made aware that they are eligible for Healthy Start vouchers when they visit the doctor or apply for benefits, for instance.
To further raise awareness of Healthy Start, the Brighton & Hove Food Partnership has been involved along with the City Council and other organisations in a local promotional campaign that has included advertising on the side of buses, in libraries and on social media. People working in organisations large and small, from volunteers to the most senior directors, have all pledged to help in a city-wide effort to increase take-up.
Lenka herself provides an example of how this campaign is helping. A parent visited NPCC recently and mentioned feeling tired. This led to a conversation about Healthy Start vitamins, which the woman had seen advertised on a local bus, and resulted in Lenka providing her with a form to complete. Every little helps.