MOGADISHU, Somalia — Dahir Abdi Salah used to feed his children three meals a day — pancakes for breakfast, spaghetti for lunch and beans for dinner.

Now, due to a global food crisis that is hitting this impoverished country especially hard, the family eats one meal a day. Other times they drink tea or water to ward off the inevitable hunger pangs.

"They eat porridge once a day," Salah said of his children, ages 2, 5 and 6, who live on the outskirts of Somalia's shattered capital, Mogadishu. "A kilogram (2 pounds) of beans used to cost a few cents — now it's a dollar. You can imagine the difference and how it has affected our lives."

More than 14 million people across the Horn of Africa are relying on food aid and other assistance to survive a devastating drought and rising food prices, aid officials said Tuesday. The crisis is especially dire in Ethiopia and Somalia, two of the poorest countries in the world.

Many are surviving on one meal a day; others choose between feeding their children and sending them to school.

"This had led to more than belt-tightening," Mark Bowden, the U.N.'s aid chief for Somalia, told journalists in Nairobi, Kenya. "People are reducing their food intake. ... We have only months before we go into a major crisis."

Bowden estimates that 3.5 million people — half of Somalia's population — will need food assistance by the end of 2008. The U.N. has issued an aid appeal for $637 million for Somalia but so far has gotten about a third of that.

The worldwide food crisis is threatening to push the number of hungry people in the world toward 1 billion — despite a recent U.N. summit pledge to reduce trade barriers and boost agricultural production.

In the Horn of Africa, food production is also hampered by drought — a double blow for Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya and Djibouti. In Ethiopia, more than 80 percent of people live off the land.

Peter Smerdon, Nairobi-based spokesman for World Food Program, said there are fears the September-October rains, crucial to ease the crisis here, will not come.

"If those rains fail," he said, "the number in need in those regions may well explode."

Responding to the crisis in Somalia is particularly dangerous because the arid, impoverished country has not had a functioning government since warlords overthrew a socialist dictator in 1991. The warlords then turned their clan-based militias on each other, plunging the country into chaos.

Violence against aid workers in Somalia also has dramatically increased this year, with at least five workers killed and several others kidnapped for ransom.

The food problem in the Horn is also spreading further west. Several West African nations across the high desertlike region called the Sahel, just below the Sahara, are experiencing a decline this year in food reserves just as global food prices are soaring.

The so-called "lean season" that begins around June has been marked by near-empty grain stores there, with the next harvest not due until around September. Invasions of locusts and poor rains in recent years have only worsened the condition, which leads to deadly malnutrition among the area's young children.