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Ernie Melin sorts donations near empty shelves normally stocked with food at the Edmonton Food Bank facility in Edmonton, Alberta on Tuesday, July 21, 2015.

Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

A new study has found that people in Ontario who struggle to afford food cost the health-care system more – in some cases more than twice as much – than those who don't, prompting one researcher to call for a guaranteed annual income to address the "crisis."

"We need to be more deliberate at focusing resources at people on the bottom end of the spectrum," said Dr. Valerie Tarasuk of the University of Toronto's Department of Nutritional Sciences.

Dr. Tarasuk, along with colleagues at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, looked at data from more than 67,000 adults in the province to determine whether an association exists between income-related barriers to food and annual health-care costs.

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Researchers compared results from five years' worth of Statistics Canada's Canadian Community Health Survey with Ontario health-insurance data stored in the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences.

They found that in 2005, and between 2007 and 2010, 12.2 per cent of those studied lived in households that were "food insecure."

Of the total sample studied, 3.9 per cent were marginally food insecure, meaning there was some indication of worry about access to food in the home. The study found these households cost Canada's health-care system 23 per cent more than members of food-secure homes per year.

Those living in moderately food-insecure households, where a compromise in quality and quantity of food exists, made up 5.2 per cent of the total number of households. They cost the health-care system an additional 49 per cent.

The remainder, 3.1 per cent, represented cases of extreme food insecurity – households where eating patterns are disrupted and food intake reduced. The survey found that those households cost an additional 121 per cent.

The study included emergency department visits, psychiatric hospital stays, physician visits, day surgeries and home care in its health-care costs. Researchers also took into account the costs of prescription drugs that are covered by the province for people on social assistance.

"This is a big problem and every indication we have is that it's growing worse," Dr. Tarasuk said.

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"We need to say that's a serious problem, that's a national problem. It's a crisis."

She says charities, including food banks, are not an adequate way to address the issue.

"One way to do that is to implement an income floor," she said.

"It's naive to think that we can manage this thing by putting a can of beans in a box at our local grocery store over Thanksgiving."

Wilford Hussey, 52, volunteers at Toronto's Daily Bread Food Bank and Our Saviour Lutheran Church Food Bank, where he gets food when he needs it.

Mr. Hussey is allergic to eggs, wheat and gluten, and experiences weakness and headaches if those ingredients are in the only food available to him.

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While he reports not using many health-care services – he prefers prayer and exercise – the study's findings suggest millions of Canadians in similar circumstances do.

Even the researchers who worked on the study, published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, did not anticipate the magnitude of the effect that food insecurity has on Canada's health-care budget.

"I think everybody's surprised; I think that's why we're being published," Dr. Tarasuk said.

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