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Poorest to get school meals

United States

Shipping America's surplus grain abroad could help beat hunger and keep pupils studying. Philip Brasher reports

Up to 20 million children in developing countries are set to be offered free school meals for the first time under a plan funded by America.

Bills being introduced in Congress and the Senate last week by a bipartisan group would authorise spending up to $750 million (pound;525m) a year, mostly to buy surplus American grain and ship it to areas of food shortage.

"It's the right time, it's the right commitment," said Ken Hackett, executive director of the charity Catholic Relief Services (CRS).

"Our (America's) grains are in surplus. Our economy is not in bad shape, and we have the capacity to reach out around the world ... unhampered by many of the Cold War restraints we had before," he explained.

Hunger and malnutrition are - along with thirst because schools do not have water supplies - common reasons why children in poor countries do not attend school or struggle and drop out.

An estimated 300 million children in Africa, Asia and Latin America suffer from malnutrition, and 125 million do not go to school.

CRS had previously been concerned that agricultural surpluses would be shipped to one location in a country without providing the infrastructure, such as transport and local storage, to ensure it would be used in schools.

However, CRS policy advisor Joe O'Connor said the legislation addresse these fears by allowing some of the money to pay for distribution costs, upgrading schools, installing kitchens, and training personnel.

The feeding projects would be run by aid charities and the UN's World Food Programme.

The legislation expands and makes permanent a $300m (pound;210m) pilot project that the Clinton administration announced last year.

The plan is the brainchild of former senator George McGovern, who with former senator Robert Dole helped create the national school-lunch programme in the 1970s, which inspired the new initiative.

George McGovern, now the US representative to United Nations food and agriculture programmes in Rome, has been recruiting foreign governments to contribute aid or technical assistance to the school-meal plan.

Canada, Japan and Australia are among the others most likely to participate, according to the World Food Programme.

The goal is not just to relieve hunger, but to get children, especially girls, to attend school, Mr McGovern stressed.

Joe Scalise, director of the World Food Programme's Washington office, said that governments in the countries where the aid is provided would be expected to take over the feeding programmes within five to ten years.

A US Bill would also authorise an extra $250m (pound;175m) a year to feed poor pregnant women, new mothers and infant children overseas under a programme designed to emulate the federal US Women, Infants and Children programme.

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