Toronto - Medical Officer of Health Dr. David McKeown is calling for action to ensure access to nutritious food for low income families. McKeown’s report to the Board of Health, “Cost of the Nutritious Food Basket - Toronto 2007” reveals that the cost of nutritious food in Toronto has increased by seven per cent in the past year and calls for measures to help reduce the negative health impacts of poverty.

Each year, health units across Ontario are required to determine the costs of 66 different foods that meet Health Canada’s recommendations for a healthy diet. The Nutritious Food Basket is a measure of the cost of healthy eating in each Board of Health jurisdiction.

“This increase in the cost of healthy food means more people will have to choose between paying the rent and buying food,” said Dr. McKeown. “When people don’t have enough money to buy healthy food - they get sick. It’s that simple. Eliminating poverty is the best medicine money can buy.”

The average weekly cost of healthy food for a family of four was found to be $133.04 a week, or $576.06 each month. The Nutritious Food Basket does not include other necessities such as cleaning supplies, toothpaste, shampoo. The combined cost of housing and basic nutritious food for a family of four in Toronto is more than the income provided by social assistance.

Although the provincial government has recently taken some positive steps such as implementing a new child tax benefit, the report recommends that the province immediately increase Ontario Works benefits sufficiently to meet daily nutritional needs, and increase the minimum wage to ensure a standard of living to promote optimal health.

At the Board of Health meeting, the Association of Local Public Health Agencies (alPHa) released data from 22 Ontario health units indicating that the average cost of the Nutritious Food Basket across the province has increased 3.5 per cent since last year’s survey.

“In public health, we are all too aware of the links between poor nutrition and health problems,” said Linda Stewart, Executive Director of alPHa. “We know that nutrition-related health issues are more prevalent among people with low incomes, in part because minimum wage rates and social assistance levels are not keeping pace with the cost of healthy foods such as lean meats and fruits and vegetables.”

Nick Saul, Executive Director of The Stop Community Food Centre, urged the province to act quickly to help ease the crisis. “Things are getting worse for people with low incomes,” Saul stated. “Rather than being phased in over several years, increases in the minimum wage and other income security measures need to come faster and to be in line with the real cost of healthy eating.”

The Report to the Board of Health also endorses the efforts of the “25 in 5 Network” which calls on provincial parties and candidates to work to reduce poverty rates in Ontario by 25 per cent in five years.