By Emma Batha
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Half the population in Central African Republic are going hungry every day, double the number a year ago, U.N. officials said as they called for help to prevent the "dire" food situation deteriorating further.
Three years of bloodshed and the displacement of nearly one million people from their homes has disrupted harvests and sent food prices soaring in the volatile country.
"It is serious. The situation is worse than last year," World Food Program (WFP) country director Bienvenu Djossa said in a phone interview from Bangui.
"We do not want to cross our (arms) and wait for a catastrophe to happen - that's why we are saying we need more money. Our call would be, don't let CAR be forgotten."
Djossa said families are so short of food that children receiving school meals under the WFP's emergency program put part of their serving in a plastic bag to take home.
Nearly 2.5 million people now face hunger with many surviving on cheap, low-nutrient food, WFP said. Families have been forced to sell their possessions, pull their children out of school and even resort to begging.
Acute food insecurity has risen five times in the space of a year, Djossa added.
The country suffered the worst crisis in its history in early 2013 when mainly Muslim Seleka fighters toppled then leader Francois Bozize. Christian militias responded by attacking the Muslim minority.
FOOD PRICE HIKE
The WFP and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in a report that crop production in 2015 was less than half the pre-crisis average.
Killing and looting had almost halved the number of cattle and reduced the number of sheep and goats by almost 60 percent, they added. Damage to infrastructure and insecurity had also hit fishing.
An escalation of violence in September helped exacerbate a massive increase in food prices, the agencies said, with the price of beef almost double pre-crisis levels. Protein-rich groundnut flour and fish were also far more expensive.
Two thirds of people surveyed reported that they had less food compared to the previous year.
The U.N. agencies said boosting agriculture was key for lasting peace in the country where three quarters of people depend on farming.
"...with the planting season starting in less than two months, boosting agriculture now is crucial to revitalizing the economy and to stability in the country," FAO country representative Jean-Alexandre Scaglia said in a statement.
WFP said it had only secured about half the $89 mln it needs until the end of July to respond to the needs of 1.4 million people in CAR and neighboring countries hosting CAR refugees.
FAO, which has been helping farmers with seeds and tools and vaccinating livestock, is appealing for $86 million.
National radio reported on Tuesday that the constitutional court had confirmed that former mathematics professor Faustin-Archange Touadera had been elected president.
Touadera, who has pledged to make peace and disarmament his priorities, will be sworn in on March 25.
(Editing by Katie Nguyen; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)