School gardens a lifeline for starving Cambodian children

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Siem Reap (Cambodia) (AFP) – Among the spinach crops in a rural Cambodian school garden, children test their math skills while weighing produce – but as food prices rise, the vegetable garden has become a safety net for families in difficulty.

Long before Covid restrictions ravaged the economy, malnutrition and poverty stalked Cambodian youth – the legacy of decades of conflict and instability after the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.

Food insecurity has worsened since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine fueled global shortages and inflation.

The World Food Program (WFP) says prices for local staples have skyrocketed over the past year: duck eggs by more than 20% and cooking oil by almost 40%.

Noodle vendor Chhon Puthy, 31, has lost half her income during the pandemic and is worried about her children’s health.

“We parents sometimes had to reduce our rations,” said the mother of two from Chroy Neang Nguon village, about two hours from Siem Reap.

In recent months, her family has come to rely on her children’s school garden and free breakfast program to ease the financial strain.

“This community depends on meals because every morning parents are busy with farming and cannot cook for their children,” she said.

garden lifeline

Remote schools in Siem Reap province use the gardens to teach students life skills such as culture and cooking.

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“I’m learning to grow vegetables, make organic fertilizers, work the soil,” 12-year-old Seyha told AFP, adding that this know-how has improved her family’s vegetable garden.

More than 1,000 schools across Cambodia have WFP-supported meal programs, with around 50 learning gardens set up with help from global advocacy group Plan International.

Before class each day, students receive a free breakfast of rice and fish soup with vegetables grown in the garden.

Long Tov, principal of Chroy Neang Nguon School, said the gardening and meal program has helped improve students’ concentration levels, memory and test scores.

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“It (also) reduces the school dropout rate enormously,” he told AFP.

Vireak, 12, said he was happy to eat at school with his classmates.

“I feel stronger and smarter and I can learn things a lot easier than before,” he said.

Impact

Malnutrition costs the Cambodian economy more than $400 million a year, or around 2.5% of GDP, according to a study supported by UNICEF.

The country has made progress in tackling this problem – chronic malnutrition among children under five has fallen from 32% in 2014 to 22% – but there are fears that inflation could slow the momentum.

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“Rising food prices are likely to exacerbate already high levels of child malnutrition, just as the country was beginning to show signs of recovering from the economic impacts of the pandemic,” said the United Nations Office for Health. nutrition in Cambodia in a press release.

At Angkor Children’s Hospital in Siem Reap, nutrition team leader Sroeu Phannsy told AFP that some poor families are forced to dilute infant formula, which can have devastating consequences for health. baby’s health.

The fight against malnutrition takes its team of health workers to remote areas, where they treat children with ready-to-eat, high-energy snacks.

“We are concerned about their growth in the future, especially their brain development will be impaired as they prepare to go to school at the age of five or six,” she said.

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Children and infants not getting enough nutrients can continue to suffer from low IQ, blindness, stunted growth and weakened immune systems.

Back at the learning garden, a teacher shows a class, with their stomachs full after breakfast, when the vegetables are ready to be harvested.

“In the learning garden, we are happy and learning important skills… At home, I grow morning glory, cucumber, beans and tomatoes,” said 12-year-old Vireak.

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