By Chris Arsenault
ROME (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Almost 24,000 Egyptian children have received school meals and rations for their families under a scheme to prevent youngsters in the poorest areas from dropping out of school and working, U.N. and EU officials said.
More than a quarter of Egypt's 82 million citizens live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.
Poverty and other social problems force up to 15 percent of Egypt's children into the workforce, including more than one million involved in seasonal farm labor, according to UNICEF.
The U.N. World Food Programme's (WFP) 60 million euro ($67.5 million) aid program targets 100,000 children from 651 schools in the most deprived areas of Egypt, including Beni Suef, 150 km south of the capital Cairo.
WFP spokeswoman Amina Al Korey said nearly 24,000 children had been given food aid since food distribution began in April.
With a fast-growing population and few job opportunities, Egypt, like other Middle Eastern countries, is struggling to improve its education levels in the face of poverty.
The initiative is designed to "tackle some of the most critical issues affecting Egypt's poorest children: under nutrition, access to quality primary education, and child labor," Ambassador James Moran, head of the European Union delegation to Egypt said in a statement on Wednesday.
The model of subsidizing poor families to keep their children in school has proven to be effective in reducing levels of malnutrition and boosting education in emerging markets and developing countries.
Under the scheme, families of children who maintain a school attendance rate of 80 percent will receive a monthly food package including 10kg of rice and one liter of cooking oil.
The value of the food items is designed to compensate for the wages a child would earn at work, giving families an incentive to keep children - especially girls - in school.
While studying the children are given date bars enriched with vitamins and minerals to help them concentrate on lessons.
(Reporting by Chris Arsenault; Editing by Katie Nguyen; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)