Nunavut's food insecurity problem could be costly for health care system

The authors of a study that estimated food insecurity in Ontario cost the province an extra billion dollars in health care in 2012, say Nunavut's food security issues likely have hidden health care costs as well.

Ontario study has implications for the North, say researchers

According to a 2012 report, 45 per cent of households in Nunavut were food insecure but little is known about what kind of an impact it's having on the territory's finances, especially when it come to health care spending.

In Ontario, researchers estimate food insecurity cost the province an extra billion dollars in 2012, because adults not getting enough nutritious food to eat use health care services more often.

Valerie Tarasuk, one of the co-authors of the Ontario study, says the relationship between health care costs and food insecurity in Nunavut is probably more dire, more chronic, and taking a bigger toll on health. (CBC)

That study, which looked at data collected from nearly 68,000 adult Ontarians by the Canadian Community Health Survey, was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. According to researchers, the implications of those findings for Nunavut could be extreme.

"There is nothing to suggest that the relationship between health care costs and food insecurity would be any weaker in Nunavut than it is in Ontario. If anything it is probably more dire, more chronic, and taking a bigger toll on health," said co-author Valerie Tarasuk.

The findings were consistent with previous studies that suggest food insecurity increases the risk of chronic disease and impacts mental health. Tarasuk says that because of this, the cost of food insecurity in Ontario is likely much higher, and that more research is needed to better determine those costs.

"We haven't even considered how many years a person has been living in a food insecure situation, the accumulation of costs over time, the loss of productivity, children's inability to perform well at school and graduate, etc."

The 2012 food insecurity report funded by Canadian Institutes of Health Research that found Nunavut had the highest rate of food insecure households, at 45.2 per cent, also found Ontario has one of the lowest rates, at 11.7 per cent.

Differences in population levels and access to health care can make it hard to compare data from Ontario and Nunavut, but Tarasuk says that clear links can be drawn in this case.

"The fact that Nunavut has such a higher prevalence of food insecurity means that an even greater amount of their health care dollars must be absorbed by the added health needs of food insecurity."

Lindsay Turner, co-chair of the Nunavut Food Security Coalition, says their group is working towards improving income in Nunavut. (CBC)

Little to no data on the cost to the territory of food insecurity exists in Nunavut, and the territory's Department of Health was not able to comment on those costs.

The Nunavut Food Security Coalition (NFSC), which includes government departments and Inuit organizations, is researching ways to lower food insecurity and increase income.

"This coming fall we are going through a process of engaging communities on how we can change the social assistance program to encourage Nunavummiut to take on training and employment," said Lindsay Turner, co-chair of the NFSC.

The group will be presenting policy recommendations to the Government of Nunavut once public consultations are over. Tarasuk says the situation in Nunavut should be treated as a national crisis.

"We're just about to release the numbers for 2013, and Nunavut is still sitting at 45 per cent," she said.

"The single biggest predictor of whether or not a person is able to put food on the table is income. We really have to start taking a look at people's ability to make ends meet."


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