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School meals programme vital for Cambodia

Pech Sotheary / Khmer Times  December 11, 2019

Teacher Tep Sreypov supervises students as they enjoy their breakfast. KT/Tep Sony

The United Nations’ World Food Programme first implemented its school meals programme in 1999 and its impact is apparent today as it continues to keep children in school by providing breakfast to about 260,000 students in eight provinces.

ANGKOR THOM DISTRCT, Cambodia  – At the Hun Sen Svay Chek Primary School in Angkor Thom district, more than 300 kindergarten and primary school students fall in line to sing the national anthem and salute the flag.

Soon after the ceremony, the children rush to wash their hands with soap because they are about to have their first meal of the day.

“In the morning, I do not eat anything at home,” Chhoy Vichai, 11, says. “I wait to eat at school because the food is delicious. I want to go to school.”

Nheb Sayoeun, the school’s principal, says WFP’s meals programme began at her school in 2006. Ms Sayoeun says following that year, more students came to school to study.

“When students come to school regularly every day, they follow lessons well,” she says. “The school’s dropout rate has reduced.”

Ms Sayoeun says in the 2019 academic year, 89 percent of students passed their exams, an increase of five percent when compared to the previous academic year, adding the school’s dropout rate decreased from 3.9 percent in 2018 to 2.35 percent this year.

WFP country director Francesca Erdelmann says the goals of the programme are to provide adequate nutrition to support learning and help communities receive income from selling agricultural products for breakfast and lunch sets for students.

“We are very proud to see that Cambodian children are happy to eat nutritious foods, and they also share knowledge of these foods to their family and community as well,” Ms Erdelmann says.

In neighbouring Kok Kreul Primary School, 23-year-old  teacher Tep Sreypov remembers when she was a student at the Daun Ov Primary School in the district from 2003 to 2008.

A child holds his
breakfast. KT/Tep Sony

“My family was poor, I didn’t have money to buy food at school,” Ms Sreypov says. “When the school started serving meals for me to eat, I became happy and it felt good to study.”

“When I was studying in primary school, most families were poor and did not have enough food to eat,” Ms Sreypov says. “We did not have breakfast, we had to wait until noon to have something to eat. I was very hungry.”

Ms Sreypov lauds the WFP for handing rice, canned fish and beans every morning to hungry children eager to learn.

She says WFP’s school meals programme helps children grow and encourages them to stay in school.

“The school meals programme encouraged me and other children to stay in school,” she says. “When I went to school, I was very happy and loved going because I would always be served breakfast before class.”

Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron says nutritious foods are vital for Cambodia’s health, education, development and economy.

“The programme has helped increase enrolment and completion rates while reducing dropout rates,” Mr Naron says.

He says the programme has increased enrolment rates from 80 percent in 2014 to 99 percent today while reducing dropout rates from eight percent to six percent in the same period.

“The ministry will continue to cooperate with WFP and other development partners to implement this programme,” Mr Naron says. “And through many experiences learnt from partner organisations, Cambodia will further strengthen the capacity to train our education officers and relevant authorities to build a better future for the children.”

Due to the benefits provided by the meals programme, the Ministry of Education in 2014 began gradually implementing it in other schools.

Earlier this year, the ministry said the programme will be extended to 205 primary schools in six additional provinces.

It said 8,000 tonnes of rice and 800 tonnes of vegetables will be made available for purchase from local communities.

Recently, Japan provided $3.2 million to the government through the programme to purchase 415 metric tonnes of Japan-made canned fish to be eaten by students during breakfast.

Valerie Guarnieri, assistant executive director of WFP, says the organisation will continue to cooperate with the government to expand it to all target schools.

Students in Siem Reap province eat breakfast provided through a joint meals programme run by the WFP and government which has reduced school dropout rates and increased enrolment. KT/Tep Sony

“WFP is ready to participate with the Cambodian government to continue this work and will find additional funding sources to assist in this work until Cambodia can manage the work by themselves,” Ms Guarnieri says.

Rean Cheng, 36, a construction worker who volunteers to cook children breakfast, says local products are cooked differently every day.

“Vegetables, fish, meats, soybean, sugar and salt can help the bodies of developing children,” Ms Cheng says. “We take time from work to cook food for the children,” she says. “I am happy when I cook food for them to eat.”

Most of the meals served under WFP’s programme come from community agricultural products.

Den Hon, a farmer from the district, says he sells his vegetables to schools and it has helped improve his family’s living condition.

“There is a school representative that comes and buys vegetables I grow daily at a reasonable price,” Mr Hon says. “I also sell vegetables at the market, so the programme has improved our lives.”

“In the past, we only depend on cultivating rice and sometimes we migrate to become construction workers,” he adds. “But now I can support my family with one profession.”

Back at Daun Ov Primary School, Ms Sreypov encourages the government and its development partners to spread the programme to all schools in the Kingdom.

“I would regret if the programme’s scope was decreased or the whole thing was ended. I don’t want to lose this programme,” she says. “I hope the WFP will continue to help Cambodia.”

“As a teacher, I will also try to reach students so they can study hard because human resource development starts with education,” Ms Sreypov adds. “Therefore, we have to strengthen the enthusiasm of children until they achieve their life goals.”


From: KHMER TIMES (CAMBODIA) December 11, 2019

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