"We are particularly encouraged by this contribution", said Manuel Aranda da Silva, WFP Regional Director for West and Central Africa.
"It comes at a time when WFP is putting major efforts in strengthening school feeding projects in Sahel countries."
WFP and education ministers of the nine Sahel countries recently launched a drive to get nearly six million more children into school in the Sahel over the next 11 years by extending the school meals programme and combining it with other measures to improve child health and nutrition as well as basic education support.
ALLIANCE FOR ACTION
"The Alliance for Action on School Feeding, Health and Basic Education for the Sahel" was launched last September in the Senegalese capital Dakar at a conference of education ministers from nine countries in the drought-prone region.
Italy is the first nation to contribute dedicated funds to school feeding programmes within this regional initiative.
In the Sahel only half the children of primary school age receive a basic education. In some of the least developed countries such as Niger and Mali, only a third of children go to school. And while conservative rural families may be willing to see their sons learn to read and write, many keep their girls at home to help with domestic tasks.
In Senegal, WFP currently provides meals for 115,000 students in the regions of Kaolack, Fatick and Tambacounda. Beginning in January 2005, WFP expects to feed an additional 120,000 students in 350 schools in the southern Casamance region.
BRIGHTER MORE ALERT PUPILS
"We hope to improve the situation by making free school meals more widely available in the areas of greatest poverty and food insecurity," da Silva said.
"Girls will be particularly targeted. In many cases, they will not only be given hot meals at school , but also some food to take home to their mothers and families as well."
The idea is that not only will parents find it more attractive to send their children to school. Pupils themselves will be brighter, more alert and more receptive to learning if they are well fed and achieve better academic results.
ONLY US$34 PER YEAR
At present, WFP supplies the food for school meals for 674,000 children in the Sahel - just 10 percent of the seven million children enrolled in primary schools in the nine targeted countries. This costs an average of US $34 per child per year.
The Alliance for Action on School Feeding, Health and Basic Education for the Sahel, aims to feed and provide clean water and decent sanitation for a total of 5.7 million children by 2015.
This is the target date by which all the participating states aim to achieve free primary education for all.
The programme will cost about $24 million per year in its early years, rising to $163 million in its final stages, when WFP will be relying on donors for cash to buy 360,000 tonnes of food per year.
Wherever possible, WFP will purchase food from local farmers, so the school meals programme should help stimulate as well the rural economy in West Africa.
WFP has been providing school meals around the world for the past 40 years, but a key aim of its new long-term strategy for the Sahel is to ensure a stronger linkage in government policies between child health and educational achievement.
For more information on WFP's school feeding programmes in the Sahel, call:
Tel: +221 849 6500 ext. 4990