KAMPONG SPEU, Cambodia — At dawn in a ramshackle elementary school in rural Cambodia, the children think of only one thing: their stomachs. They anxiously await the steaming buckets of free rice delivered to their desks.
But by the end of the month, they will no longer get free breakfast from the U.N. World Food Program. About 450,000 Cambodian students will become the latest victims of soaring global food prices.
Five local suppliers have defaulted on contracts to provide rice because they can get a higher price elsewhere, program officials say. Prices of rice have tripled on the global market since December.
Faced with a shortfall of more than 14,000 tons of rice, and with more pressing needs to meet, the World Food Program stopped the free breakfasts in March. The schools' remaining stocks are expected to run out in the coming days.
That will leave students without what was often the best meal they got all day.
"I feel hopeless," said Boeurn Srey Leak, a 15-year-old in sixth grade.
Money too late for some
Rich countries have pledged $469 million for food aid to address what is expected to be a $755 million deficit, due to food prices that have risen 76 percent since December. The U.S., already the largest provider of food aid, is expected to contribute almost a third of that money. If Congress approves, the U.S. will contribute $770 million more to be available after Oct. 1.
But the money will not arrive in time to save some food programs from being cut or ended.
"I don't think there is a single program that doesn't have some kind of concerns because they have to scale down," said Susana Rico, an official of the World Food Program which feeds almost 89 million people worldwide, including 58.8 million children. "The majority of countries will suffer some kind of cutbacks in rations or programs in the next three to five months."
The numbers are grim. 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.
Private aid agencies based in the U.S. also said food price hikes are hurting their projects.
Mercy Corps will likely distribute 20 percent less food to Iraqi refugees in Syria and serve 12 percent fewer Colombian families fleeing violence in the countryside. World Vision may stop helping 1.5 million people — nearly a quarter of the number it serves — because of rising food prices and pledged donations not yet delivered. At least a third are children.
In Cambodia, the free breakfasts that started in 2000 have made children visibly healthier, said Nheng Vorn, the principal of Choumpou Proek School, about 40 miles west of the capital, Phnom Penh.
"They are more focused on lessons, and their reading ability has improved subsequently," he noted.
No money to replace breakfast program
But principals at many such rural schools don't have the money to replace the breakfast program. Girls in particular will be at risk of dropping out because families need them at home to work in the fields or help raise siblings, said Thomas Keusters, the World Food Program's Cambodia director. Children in Cambodia often start school late and repeat grades a lot, he said.
"It's not uncommon to have a girl in grade five or six who is already 15 or 16 years old," Keusters said. "We are paying them to come to school. I'm very concerned about them because I have no rice."
About six miles away from Choumpou Proek school, the students of Sangkum Seksa school devour hearty portions of rice, peas and sardines in the morning. The school has only 10 rooms, housed in two faded yellow concrete buildings. Some students go barefoot.
"I can only feel pity for them," said the principal, Tan Sak. "I have no solution for them after the current stock is used up."
Before the free breakfasts, many students left school before noon so they could eat lunch at home.
"I had difficulty sitting in the class because my stomach was growling," Rim Channa, a 13-year-old fifth-grader.
Now, once again, all they will have for breakfast is the tart fruit from the nearby tamarind trees.
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