Zimbabwe's first urban feeding programme has opened in the country's second city, Bulawayo.
Up to 800 malnourished children aged under five have been assisted over the past two weeks, Help-Age Germany told IRIN on Monday. The development agency is running the initiative in conjunction with the Bulawayo health department and the World Food Programme (WFP).
The children were identified for assistance by health staff during their routine monthly clinic visits. They all displayed weight loss, were not gaining weight, or were underweight, said Yvonne Neudeck, Help-Age Germany head-of-office in Bulawayo.
The pilot project, which is running at three clinics in the city so far, provides the mothers with a WFP-supplied ration of 10 kg of corn soya blend and one litre of cooking oil to enable them to supplement their child's diet.
"Not all the mothers brought their children for their monthly check up previously, but now that they know the child might be given food, they are coming," said Neudeck.
Humanitarian officials have warned for some time feeding programmes were needed in Zimbabwe's urban centres, which have been bypassed by the current relief effort.
The country's failing economy has worsened unemployment and deepened poverty. Abuse of the government's price control system has also caused shortages and driven basic commodities onto the black market where they are sold at vastly inflated prices.
"It's been a great project and the needs have been much bigger than expected," Neubeck said. "It's very bad [in Bulawayo], worse than in the rural areas ... The mothers tell us that they have no food and the basic foods that are available are too expensive.
"The children look three years old but they are five. They are completely underweight and many have HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis or both," she added.
Neudeck said Help-Age Germany hoped to extend the programme, which is funded by the British Department for International Development, to all 17 clinics in Bulawayo. Plans were also being finalised to open a similar programme in the capital Harare, followed by other urban centres like Gweru and Kwekwe.
"We didn't advertise the programme because we were afraid of a rush, but word of mouth has been fantastic - neighbours and friends are telling each other and the news is spreading very fast. We've also had good cooperation from the Bulawayo council," Neudeck said.
According to the latest WFP assessment, more than half of Zimbabwe's 11.6 million people are in need of food aid.