World Food Programme starts distributing food in crisis-hit Venezuela

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(Reuters) - The U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) said on Wednesday it had begun distributing school meals to children in Venezuela, where some 7 million people require humanitarian assistance after years of economic collapse in the once-prosperous OPEC nation.

The WFP's first take-home rations were distributed for children under 6 years old at some 277 schools and preschools, as well as school staff, in 25 municipalities in northwestern Falcon state, WFP said in a statement.

Since Venezuela's schools are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, parents or teachers picked up the monthly rations - which consist of 6 kg (13 pounds) of rice, 4 kg (9 pounds) of lentils, 454 grams (1 pound) of salt and one liter (2 pints) of vegetable oil - on their behalf, according to Susana Rico, the WFP's Venezuela representative.

"We are reaching these vulnerable children at a critical stage of their lives when their brains and bodies need nutritious food to develop to their full potential," Rico was quoted as saying in the statement.

Activists had been clamoring for years for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to allow the WFP to distribute food in the country, which contains the world's largest crude reserves by some measures, as a drop in crude prices and gaping fiscal deficits led to hyperinflation and recession.

Maduro and the WFP reached a deal in April, in what was seen by some analysts and Western diplomats as a concession by the government aimed at getting U.S. sanctions on its oil industry lifted.

More than 5 million Venezuelans have emigrated, according to the United Nations, while some 60% of households live in poverty, according to the Encovi survey by researchers at Andres Bello Catholic University. Some 7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations.

WFP aims to feed some 185,000 children by the end of the year, 850,000 by July 2022 and 1.5 million by 2023.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera; Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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