Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Rice prices force WFP to halt Cambodian school breakfasts

A young student (L) passes a scavenger in Phnom Penh where price hikes have forced the UN to suspend a food programme

PHNOM PENH (AFP) — Soaring rice prices have forced the UN World Food Programme to indefinitely suspend a programme supplying free breakfasts to 450,000 poor Cambodian schoolchildren, an agency official said Tuesday.

"The cost of rice" was the main reason behind the move, Thomas Keusters, WFP country director in Cambodia, told AFP.

Keusters said the agency had suspended the popular programme since last week until mid-July when students go on holiday. The move affects 450,000 children in 1,343 schools countrywide.

He said the programme was suspended because the WFP could not afford to pay the current high prices for rice, which accounts for 76 percent of the school breakfasts.

Better quality rice now sells for more than 700 dollars per tonne in Cambodia compared with 300 to 400 dollars last year, according to sellers.

Keusters said some schools were using their own rice stocks to feed the children but they would also run out in less than a month.

He said the free breakfasts programme was important to attract children to school and being fed helped them pay attention in their lessons.

WFP introduced free school breakfasts in Cambodia about eight years ago but Keusters said he did not know when or whether the programme would restart.

Cambodia, where more than 30 percent of its 14 million population lives in poverty, is one of 12 "hunger hot spot" countries, according to the 2006 Global Hunger Index of the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Cambodia's inflation soared into double digits late last year, hovering around 11 percent, driving up the cost of food and other essentials.

Good-grade rice -- Cambodia's staple food -- now costs nearly 0.90 dollars per kilogram (41 cents per pound), deepening the poverty of the one-third of the population who live on less than 50 cents a day.

Aid agencies have warned that the growing food crisis could threaten tens of thousands of rural Cambodians with hunger in the coming year, as even food handouts have become significantly more expensive.

World grain prices have rocketed, a trend blamed variously on higher energy and fertiliser costs, greater global demand, droughts, the loss of farmland to biofuel plantations, industry and cities, and price speculation.

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