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School meals may not be a major attraction for most Japanese kids, but in many poor countries they save children from both hunger and illiteracy, according to the World Food Program, which plans to hold a photo exhibition next month in Tokyo.

The U.N. agency has been unable to help reduce the number of chronically hungry children worldwide. But it is at least providing a concrete way of giving poor kids a chance to learn and thrive, simply with a nutritious meal at school, organizers said.

The exhibition, running from Nov. 6 to 29 at U.N. University in Tokyo, will feature about 100 photos of children benefiting from the WFP school meal program worldwide. It is the largest-ever organized in Japan by the agency’s Tokyo office, they said.

Also to be featured is a story of world marathon record holder Paul Tergat of Kenya, who became a beneficiary of the program at age 8 and is now expected to be designated as the WFP’s third goodwill ambassador.

“I hope visitors — young people, children and their parents alike — have their awareness and understanding of hunger raised,” WFP public affairs officer Miwa Takayama said.

“While people in Japan enjoy peace and abundant food, with children often leaving food on their plates just because they don’t like it, children in other parts of the world live without food,” she said.

Of the world’s 300 million chronically hungry children, an estimated 170 million eat no meals during school hours and 130 million do not attend school because their impoverished parents tend to have them working, the WFP said.

Malnutrition is a significant factor in the death of 11,000 children every day, and severe malnutrition in many cases hinders mental and physical development, which in turn becomes an added burden on poor countries.

Using food as an incentive to encourage parents to allow children to go to school is a simple but concrete way to make an impact.

At an average cost of $34 a year per child, the program not only helps the child become a literate, self-reliant adult but also leads to creating the human infrastructure needed for poor countries to develop and prosper, it said.

In 2001, it fed more than 15 million children in schools in 57 countries.

Though Tergat was lucky enough to go to school even before the program began in a town where at best one child per family was educated, he found it hard to concentrate on lessons after a 4.8-km trek each morning on an empty stomach, the organizers said.

When hungry, kids are easily distracted and have problems concentrating, and this impedes their ability to learn and achieve, the agency said.

But after the school meal program began, Tergat found himself no longer hungry in class, and friends who had left school returned and other children who had never been to school were sent by their parents.

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