DAKAR, Senegal, September 18, 2017--More than 1.5 million vulnerable children across West and Central Africa risk going to school hungry or dropping out altogether, due to lack of financing for nourishing school meals from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), the agency announced at the start of the 2017-2018 school year.\u00a0\r\n\r\nAltogether, WFP\u2019s regional programme faces an US$76 million funding gap, the agency warned as experts were meeting in Montreal for an annual forum on child nutrition, co-sponsored and hosted by the Global Child Nutrition Foundation, WFP\u2019s Centre of Excellence against Hunger and the Breakfast Club of Canada.\r\nThe repercussions are dramatic, since the hearty and nutritious WFP-provided lunches and snacks are the only meal many youngsters eat all day. More broadly, the funding crunch puts at risk a whole generation, with broader spill-over effects on national economies and development.\u00a0\r\n\u201cBy failing to fully fund school meals, we are collectively short-changing the next generation and Africa\u2019s future,\u201d said WFP West and Central Africa Regional Director Abdou Dieng. \u201cSchool meals are one of the best investments the international community can make to ensure a head start for young children in some of the world\u2019s poorest countries.\u201d\u00a0\r\nThat\u2019s the case in conflict-torn Central African Republic, where WFP\u2019s school meals programme, aimed to reach more than 200,000 youngsters, is only half funded. Yet more critical is the case of Burkina Faso\u2019s programme, reaching nearly 83,000 children \u2013 and 0 percent financed.\u00a0\r\nIn Niger, where WFP school meals reach more than a quarter of a million pupils, the programme is only 19 percent funded, while Senegal\u2019s programme only five percent. Other particularly at-risk countries include Liberia, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, but the funding dearth stretches across the region.\r\n\u201cWe are talking about some of the hungriest and most vulnerable children,\u201d Dieng said. \u201cThis is a crisis for education, but also a crisis for nutrition and food security which are the fundamental pillars of development.\u201d\u00a0\r\nOverall, the programme plans to reach nearly 2.2 million youngsters over the 2017-2018 academic year, often in areas with extremely high levels of hunger and malnutrition. Without proper financing, most of these young students will end the school year hungry.\r\nStudies show the meals help improve attendance and performance rates. They are also a key incentive for parents to send their children \u2013 particularly girls\u2013 to school and to keep them there.\u00a0\r\nWhile some governments and agencies lead or complement WFP\u2019s programme in the West and Central Africa, in many areas the agency is the sole or main provider of school meals. Over the years, however, WFP has shrunk its coverage for lack of funds.\r\nDistributed by APO on behalf of World Food Programme (WFP).