KABUL, 18 April 2011 (IRIN) - Aid agencies and education officials are concerned that scaling down school feeding programmes in impoverished rural areas of Afghanistan could adversely affect school attendance and the health and nutrition of hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren. The concerns were prompted by a 14 April statement by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) which warned that funding shortfalls would threaten food aid delivery to millions of poor Afghans. WFP says it urgently needs US$275 million to continue feeding over seven million vulnerable Afghans, including some two million schoolchildren. “WFP will be forced to reduce the school-feeding programme in June only because our supplies of high-energy biscuits for distribution in schools are due to run out then. We urgently need new funding to replenish these supplies,” Marcus Prior, a WFP spokesman for Asia, told IRIN. Other programmes such as food for work, food for tuberculosis patients, and distributions to other vulnerable people could also be affected. “This will have very negative consequences for education in Badakhshan Province,” said Rohullah Hamid, a spokesman of the provincial education department, adding that school attendance had already dropped markedly in Yamgan District where food aid to students had been suspended. School feeding and food aid to schoolchildren are important incentives for education in Afghanistan which has some of the worst literacy rates in the world. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said schooling may stop “completely” for some children without food aid and feeding programmes. Officials in the Ministry of Education (MoE), however, said suspending school feeding programmes would not have a catastrophic impact. “We know the programme is crucial and we support its continuation but I don’t think the end of school feeding will have significant implications for the national education system,” said Sefatullah Sapai, MoE’s spokesman. Risks to girls’ education In the southern province of Kandahar, where gender disparity in education is marked, officials say that without WFP food aid some poor families would have no incentive to send their girls to school. “WFP provides cooking oil to school girls and this is a critical incentive,” said Najibullah Ahmadi, director of Kandahar’s education department. WFP distributes “a take-home ration of vegetable oil to 600,000 girl students” in a bid to reduce the gender gap in classrooms in areas where female enrolment is low. Families facing food insecurity, meanwhile, have another motivation to send their children to school: nutritious biscuits freely distributed by WFP. "The snacks provided to the schoolchildren are prepared from fortified food products and therefore they are a rich source of micronutrients, besides the calories. To some children, the school snack or meal is the only food they have sometimes. The impact will be felt if the programme is pulled or scaled down through low grades [attainment levels] - resulting from loss of concentration and alertness in class, and absenteeism," said Henry Mdebwe, a UN Children’s Fund nutrition specialist. To feed over seven million vulnerable Afghans this year, WFP has asked for over $430 million, but thus far has received only about $155 million - from donors such as Japan, USA, India, the Russian Federation, Finland and New Zealand.