In Cambodia, 15% of the population suffers from undernourishment and 32% of children younger than 5 experience stunting. Children are not consuming enough food and the food that they do consume does not have the nutrients necessary for healthy development. Considering these dire statistics, as early as 1999, the World Food Programme (WFP) committed to helping the Cambodian government provide school meals for children. Although combating undernourishment is a daunting task, Cambodia’s school feeding program has expanded over the years and is continuing to make a profound impact on Cambodian communities.
Food Production and Intense Weather: Food Security Challenges
One of the factors contributing to high undernourishment rates in Cambodia is limited production and efficiency in the agricultural sector. According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), “nearly 80% of Cambodians live in rural areas and 65% rely on agriculture, fisheries and forestry for their livelihoods.” At the same time, a fifth of the Cambodian population suffers from food deprivation. Although Cambodia has a large agriculture industry, the nation is not able to meet the needs of its people.
Challenges within agricultural production affect crop yields, and therefore, also affect the capacity to increase people’s access to food. In Cambodia, crop plots are small, leading to limited agricultural output. Additionally, many areas with rainfall-dependant crops do not receive consistent rainfall and these same areas are unable to produce during the dry season. Also, a growing number of rural Cambodians do not have access to cropland. These factors pose challenges to Cambodian farmers and agricultural production expansion.
Compounding issues of food insecurity and poverty further, Cambodia regularly experiences natural disasters. Monsoons are common, and on the opposite end of the spectrum, some areas experience severe droughts. The loss of land and the reduction in shared resources as a result of natural disasters harshly impact food-insecure Cambodians already in vulnerable positions.
Investing in Children and Communities Through Food
In 1999, the WFP began to support government-backed school meal programs, helping to implement these programs across 908 Cambodian schools. Pre-primary and primary schools provide meals, which is particularly important because children younger than 5 are especially vulnerable to the impacts of malnutrition.
In 2014, the WFP and the Cambodian government reached one of their goals for school meal programming, a “home-grown school meals model.” The model calls for schools to locally purchase ingredients for meals, which increases demand for and develops the local agriculture industry while spurring job growth. At first, a couple of schools tested the home-grown school meals model, and now, more than 200 schools implement the model.
The Benefits of School Meals
Cambodia’s school feeding program is an important source of food for Cambodian children, providing them with the nutrients necessary for healthy development. Before Cambodia’s school feeding program, some children were unable to eat during the school day because they did not have enough money to buy food at school. The implementation and growth of the school meal program mark an important investment in Cambodian children, especially as the Cambodian government works with the WFP in the transition to run the home-grown school feeding program on its own.
In Cambodia, school meals benefit children’s health and improve their engagement in school. An added and possibly unforeseen benefit of Cambodia’s school feeding program is that parent engagement with schools and teachers has increased. Through the program, parents have become more knowledgeable about nutrition, to the benefit of themselves and their children. Furthermore, parents are eager to get involved in the program. Parents, even the most impoverished ones, donate ingredients and money and volunteer when the program requires extra help. Parents even helped to build a kitchen in one of the participating schools.
Turning the Tide
Although Cambodia has high levels of undernourishment and challenges to its agricultural sector, the government is working hard to turn the tide. The school feeding program’s promising results and growth thus far exemplify how far Cambodia has come in tackling undernourishment and hunger, illustrating the far-reaching impacts of school meal programs. With continued efforts, Cambodia will begin to see reductions in its undernourishment statistics, especially among the youth, as Cambodia’s school feeding program continues to develop and benefit Cambodian children and communities.
– Anna Ryu