Saturday, February 26, 2011

$13 spaghetti, $29 Cheez Whiz anger northerners PM on hot seat over subsidy change

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says his government could make changes to a controversial subsidy program blamed for skyrocketing food prices in Canada's Arctic.
The prime minister says his government hears people's complaints about the Nutrition North Canada food subsidy program.
Nutrition North Canada subsidizes healthy food such as fruit and vegetables. However, the program covers a smaller list of goods than the old food-mail program it replaced.
Items not covered by the subsidy have reportedly surged in price, resulting in things such as $13 for a bag of spaghetti, $29 for a jar of Cheez Whiz and $77 for a bag of breaded chicken.
"There are concerns," Harper said.
"Our position is to always listen. We will listen to the public on this and if it's necessary to make changes, we will make them."
The stated goal of the program is to help transport quality foods at cheaper prices, to a region with rampant health problems such as high rates of diabetes. It was also meant to replace an old mail subsidy system described by Ottawa as inefficient.
But the new system has become the subject of much skepticism, fuelled by media reports showing shocking sticker prices on everyday goods in northern grocery stores.
"It's an important priority for us that people in Arctic regions have access to quality foods at an affordable price," Harper said.
The new program officially kicks in on April 1 but the government began phasing out the old one in October, gradually removing subsidies on certain items considered unhealthy lsuch as Cheez Whiz and on household items such as toilet paper.
Retailers say they are paying more to fly items in to the remote communities and the higher prices faced by consumers are on recently delivered products.
Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq has defended the program and said northern retailers are to blame for the high prices, not the federal government.
She said Ottawa will discuss the situation with retailers.
Consumers have been venting their anger on various websites. One reacted furiously to the suggestion the old program had to be replaced because some people were using it to ship non-food items. "So this is why we have to starve?" wrote a poster on one northern news website,
"Cause someone abused the old program and instead of fixing the glitches and enforcing what was allowed and not allowed you had to screw all of Nunavut -- just make the poor poorer, eh."
-- The Canadian Press

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