Heavy snowfall in Tehran

Iranian women walk in Tehran on Sunday. Heavy snowfall has added to the misery of poor Iranians who have had to stand in line on recent days for government food packages. (Abedin Taherkenareh / European Pressphoto Agency / February 2, 2014)

TEHRAN -- For the third consecutive day, low-income Iranian families lined up Tuesday in harsh winter weather outside government–run distribution centers to pick up free food parcels.

The nationwide handouts are part of an effort by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to alleviate poverty and counter soaring consumer prices. Everyone who makes less than 5 million rials per month -- the equivalent of about $200 -- is entitled to one food basket.

Outside distribution centers at the government-run department stores Shahrvand (Citizen) and Sepah (Army), crowds lined up for the baskets, with each package including two frozen chickens, rice, vegetable oil and two packs of processed cheese.

But criticism has mounted about long, unwieldy lines amid freezing temperatures and reports of shoving and scuffles.

Sohaila Safaei, a law professor in line, welcomed the initiative. But she wondered why food packages were only handed out to heads of family and not to low-income single people. She also questioned the one food basket per family limit.

Some have challenged the quality of food in the baskets.

Two Iranian lawmakers, Hadi Hussiani and Abdolwahid Fayyazi, moved to impeach the minister of industries after learning that rice from India was being handed out instead of higher quality, locally grown rice, reported the official state news agency IRNA.

Hassan, a 39-year old taxi driver who helps care for his elderly father, was found waiting in line for his ration at a distribution hub in central Tehran. He found the experience demeaning.

“I am really angry,” said Hassan, who asked that his full name not be given for privacy reasons. “My 76-year-old father who is sick and suffers from Parkinson's disease wanted to stand in line to get the giveaways. I begged him not to do so.”

The food handouts were introduced in part to replace the cash subsidy program launched by the administration of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That initiative was designed in part to help protect low-income families from rising consumer prices at a time of high inflation and widespread unemployment in an economy weakened by international sanctions over Iran's nuclear program.

There were unconfirmed reports on some pro-opposition Iranian news sites that two people were killed Sunday in stampedes while trying to get their food baskets. But Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ezhei, spokesman for the judiciary, denied that anyone had died, attributing the reports to media sources hostile to the Islamic Republic.

“The anti-revolution foreign media outlets try to use anything against the system,” Mohseni-Ezhei said during his weekly news conference Monday. “What they wrote is not true.”

But he did fault the distribution of the food packages.

“We hope that the government thinks about a well-considered method and how to handle the giveaways in a better way,” said Mohseni-Ezhei. “It is not appropriate that people wait in long lines during the '10 days of dawn.'" he said, referring to the festivities leading up to the 35th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution on Feb. 11.

Conservative hard-liners, political rivals of Rouhani, seized on the food-line snafu as an illustration of what it termed the incompetence of the current administration.

“Again, rulers put people in queues on the eve of anniversary of the revolution,” snarled the conservative news website Tabnak.ir

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Special correspondents Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Sandels from Beirut. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.