Low-nutrient food hampers are putting people who rely on food banks at risk of developing depression and obesity, researchers suggest.

Meizi He, a professor at the University of Western Ontario in London, studied the nutritional value of 180 food hampers offered at food banks in southwestern Ontario and found that the food was low in caloric value and nutritional content.

"This study found inadequate amounts of energy, macro- and micro-nutrients available in food bank hampers and adds support to the growing body of evidence with regard to the monumental problem of hunger and inappropriate nutrition among a substantial number of Canadians," the study said.

In fact, hampers that were expected to last for three days had the required caloric value for just 1.6 days. The study, published in the January edition of the Canadian Journal of Public Health, said while the hampers were well-stocked with non-perishable cereals and grains, there was a scarcity of fruits, vegetables, and dairy and meat products.

But Gail Nyberg, the executive director of Toronto's Daily Bread Food Bank, said her hampers do include perishable items.

"All of our hampers have a fresh component," she said. "Today, I put together a hamper based on our sheets for a family of four, and that included two quarts of milk, eight yogurts, a carton of eggs, 10 pounds of carrots, a 10-pound bag of potatoes. We use the money people donate for food to purchase fresh, to supplement the dry non-perishables, so our hampers do have that."

Nyberg also noted that it's important to keep in mind thatfood banks were always meant to be a supplementary source of food.

"Is food bank food a way to feed your family on an ongoing basis to provide the kinds of nutrition that people need? Absolutely not," Nyberg told CBC.ca. "At best, food banks were always meant to be but a stop-gap measure."

The study also noted food bank users are at a higher risk of developing serious health problems if they rely solely on the hampers to feed their families.

"Approximately 3.7 million Canadians worry about having adequate amounts of food, do not eat suitable quality or selections of foods, and/or have inadequate amounts of food. These Canadians live in food-insecure households," the study said. "Physically, food insecurity is associated with anemia, chronic illness, depression, obesity, and poor overall health."

About 820,600 Canadians rely on food banks each month, and40 per cent of them are children, the study said.

The authors of the study said food banks would be able to offer more well-rounded diets by encouraging fruit, vegetable, meat and dairy donations from individuals and companies. But the study noted that many food banks would first need access to storage space and facilities to stock the fresh food items.