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Cambodian kids enjoy last free breakfast after mounting food prices force UN to end program

Cambodian kids enjoy last free breakfast after mounting food prices force UN to end program

Students at a rural elementary school in Cambodia enjoyed their last free breakfasts in class Friday, after the United Nations World Food Program stopped supplying rice and other food because of soaring global prices.
In addition to directly providing nutrition for children, the WFP breakfasts gave parents an incentive to send them to school rather than to work in the fields, or to have them stay home to look after younger siblings.
The free breakfast program in Cambodia began in 2000 and has recently been benefiting about 450,000 rural students. The World Food Program feeds almost 89 million people worldwide, including 58.8 million children.
The principal of Choumpou Proek school, about 43 miles (70 kilometers) west of the capital, Phnom Penh, said his 612 students enjoyed a final free breakfast of steamed yellow split peas with salt _ minus rice.
The school's rice supply ran out May 27, so staff cooked the last 64 pounds (29 kilograms) of peas for the students, Nheng Vorn said by telephone from the school in the rice farming village in Kampong Speu province. The WFP also provided soybeans and cooking oil.
Even though the school is in a rice-growing area, the farms cannot produce enough of the staple to feed the entire community. WFP selected schools in poorest communities for the breakfast program.
The U.N.'s food agency said breakfast stocks at the 1,344 rural schools under its program would run out before mid-June. WFP stopped sending rice supplies in March.
The cutoff began after five local suppliers defaulted on contracts to provide rice because they could get a higher price elsewhere, program officials said.
The price of rice tripled in the first four months of the year as the world food crisis deepened.
Soaring fuel prices have driven up the costs of fertilizers, farm vehicle use and transporting food to markets. Speculation and increased consumption of meat and dairy goods in China, India and other booming developing nations are also considered major factors in the food price hikes.
About six miles (10 kilometers) from Nheng Vorn's school, Sangkum Seksa school principal Tan Sak said his students have been eating breakfasts of steamed peas with salt since their WFP rice ran out two weeks ago.
The school's kitchen will shut down next week when the supply of peas runs out, he said.
Similar situations were occurring around the country and all over the developing world.
In Burundi, Kenya and Zambia, hundreds of thousands of people face cuts in food rations after June. In Iraq, 500,000 recipients will likely lose food aid. In Yemen, it's 320,000 households, including children and the sick.
Coco Ushiyama, WFP's acting director for Cambodia, said in an interview last month that resumption of the free breakfast program would depend on donors' contributions in the future.
She said it was "really a tough decision" to end it in favor of continuing programs benefiting orphans of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, who are in a "more desperate need" of food aid.
She also expressed concern that the end of free breakfasts could reverse gains already made in trying to improve education for rural children.
At the two schools, the principals said student attendance rates were stable so far.
Nheng Vorn, the principal at Choumpou Proek, said he has been meeting with village leaders and families to encourage children to keep going to school, even though the free breakfasts were coming to an end.
"All we can do is hope to get more rice, but that does not depend on us because prices on the global market are still very high," he said.
It was not immediately clear if the breakfast program could be resumed with new funding, and WFP officials in Cambodia were not available to comment Friday.