As the World Food Programme prepares to hand over the delivery of school feeding wholly to the Government, Simona Beltrami takes a closer look at a mini-food system powered by women.
Dawn’s yet to break on the rice fields around Bos Thom village, in Cambodia’s northern Siem Reap province. The silence is broken by faint music from a nearby house – the tail end of a wedding party – and the darkness by a single light.
Mec Sinat is already at work beneath her house which sits on stilts. Helped by one of her daughters, she weighs, sorts and bags fresh, locally grown vegetables: long beans, gourds, lettuces and pumpkins. These she will load onto her moped and deliver to schools in the area.
Across the road Leach Panh, a cook, is lighting the fire in the small outhouse that serves as the kitchen of the local primary school, which is signed up to World Food Programme (WFP) school meals. Soon, she and her daughter will start preparing breakfast for 150 children.
On the menu is samlor korko, a soup that combines in-season vegetables, fish, spices and herbs. This will be served with a side of fortified rice donated, along with cooking oil, by the US Department of Agriculture.
Investing in the future
With almost one-third of children under 5 suffering from stunting – or low height-for-age – and undernutrition costing the Southeast Asian nation about 1.7 percent of its annual GDP, school meals can be a game-changer in Cambodia.
Pupils at Bos Thom primary school are among 300,000 children who enjoy daily hot meals through a school feeding programme launched by WFP and Cambodia’s Government in 1999.
Today, the Government is gradually taking it over, recognizing its positive impact on nutrition, education, social protection and local economy. Cambodian authorities independently manage and fund meals in approximately 40 percent of programme-participating schools, allocating nearly US$5 million to school feeding this year (up from US$52.9 million in 2022).
Today, WFP works with national and local authorities to create the conditions for the Government to fully own the programme, by ensuring it’s included in national budgets, planning and the country’s national protection scheme.
Standing by the gate to welcome the children as they arrive – most on foot, some on bicycles, a few dropped off by parents on mopeds – head teacher Van Samun praises the impact of the programme, which was introduced at her school in 2003.
“Dishes like korko soup contain all the basic nutrients beneficial to the children’s health and can reduce the likelihood of contracting diseases,” she says.
That’s not the only difference she has noticed in a village where many people are illiterate – and where students were once frequently absent.
“School meals have changed things,” she says. “More children are being enrolled in school, and fewer are dropping out. Many are continuing into higher education.”