Rice Prices Shut Down School Breakfast Program

Cambodian SchoolchildrenWhen the World Food Program (WFP) introduced free breakfasts to public schools in impoverished communities around the world, teachers immediately noticed a difference in their classrooms. Not only were students more alert and focused, they attended more regularly and were never late so as not to miss breakfast time. The quality of the students changed, but so did the quantity. The percentage of female students – most likely to be forced to stay behind to help earn income – sky-rocketed and the age of attendance fell. Four year olds began to attend school with their older siblings, sitting obediently in classes just for a free bowl of rice in the morning. In many impoverished families, children are forced to earn their keep in place of going to school. In addition to eradicating hunger, WFP made school attendance a central part of their goal for the breakfast program.

The WFP school feeding program has become a touchstone aspect of both the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the G8 action pact of 2002. Between the program’s inception in 1999 and its last data recorded in 2005, the number of children served has grown by 82%, which amounts to 21.7 million schoolchildren in 74 countries.

Now, despite its success and widespread acclaim, the International Herald is reporting that the WFP program will not continue in Cambodia – the first of many predicted shut-downs as rising food costs threaten the profoundly poor. While the program’s budgeted cost for rice last year was $295 per ton, the current market price is more than $700 per ton. In a country where half of all calories consumed come from rice, the rising prices make it very difficult for farmers to donate to free breakfast programs. So will the Cambodia program be able to re-open? The WFP director on the ground gave his most optimistic estimate: maybe next school year in October 2008.

To learn more about the work of the World Food Program and to find out how you can donate to help the schools in Cambodia, please go to their website.

(Picture by Thomas Fuller for the International Herald Tribune)

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