Poor Attendance Reports Swirl Amid Feeding Cuts

When the UN’s World Food Program announced in April that it was being forced by high rice prices to curtail its school-feeding program, the main concern was that students would stop showing up.

While WFP has not yet collected comprehensive data on whether attendance numbers have been affected at all 1,344 schools where their programs were halted May 1, reported cases of attendance dropping drastically in Kompong Speu, Siem Reap and Stung Treng provinces have raised significant concern.

Coco Ushiyama, WFP deputy country director, said in an interview Thursday that while food stocks remain at about 30 percent of schools nationwide, they are dwindling. She said she is concerned for the upcoming months when families are between harvests and traditionally low on stocks at home.

“We are very concerned…. Anecdotally, we are beginning to hear that some schools have had their attendance drop,” she said.

WFP feeding programs, which reach 450,000 students in 11 provinces, began in 1999 and include breakfast helpings of fish, oil, yellow split peas and salt in addition to 100 grams of rice per child per day.

“For most of these children, that school breakfast is the only meal or the only substantial meal that they get to eat all day,” Ushiyama said.

Kong Kanitha, a WFP education officer, said Thursday that at least one school she visited in Stung Treng’s Siem Pang district had completely run out of stock, and that less than half the students were coming to school as a result. Those who do show up are coming late, which shortens lesson time, she added.

Rith Salim, director of Chouy Chakrei Primary School in Siem Reap province’s Puok district, said Sunday that because his school ran out of food stocks May 8, an average of only half the kindergarten students show up on a daily basis. On some days, he said, only 10—out of 60—make an appearance.

“We do not know what to do. I have instructed teachers to collect children, but it is useless,” he said.

Ham Chla, Stung Treng’s Siem Bok district deputy chief of education, said Sunday that the food stocks at 13 out of 16 schools in his district that receive WFP assistance have not yet run out, but that he is concerned they will be depleted by June.

Attendance improved at the schools in 2005, when they began receiving WFP meals, he said.

“Before, when there was no food from WFP, female pupils did not come to school during harvest time…. The attendance in­creases when WFP gives food,” he said, adding that he did not have specific statistics available.

Chum Sophal, Education Min­istry deputy director of primary schools, said that although WFP programs help families make ends meet, the suspension of those programs has not had a negative effect on school attendance.

“The accusation of the media is not true. We do not see any children dropping school due to no breakfast…. They come to school normally. They do not just come for food,” he said, ceding that students do tend to come to school later when they know they do not have to be on time for breakfast.

Chum Sophal said drops in at­ten­dance are customary this time of year because of families needing extra hands to handle the rice harvest.

Ushiyama said the WFP needs about $5 million to resume their full programs through to the end of the year.

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