As the noise of students waiting to collect their school lunches begins to subside, Im Lone, a cook at Samrong Elementary School in Kampong Thom province, takes one of her first breaks of the day.
For the past 10 years, with support from the World Food Program (WFP), she has prepared healthy meals for hundreds of students five days a week. Like all chefs, nothing is more important to her than a good kitchen.
While the school was closed in 2021 due to COVID-19, WFP built a new kitchen, dining area and hand washing facilities with support from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This was to ensure that students, teachers and cooks could practice good hygiene by washing their hands before preparing, serving and eating meals.
“I’m so happy with our new cooking facilities,” says Im Lone. “You help me make sure everything that comes out of this kitchen is clean. The old kitchen was not very well designed so dust got in everywhere. It was hard to stay clean but that has changed now.”
Having prepared school meals for a decade, Im Lone knows the importance of a clean kitchen and a full stomach. “Freshness and safety are both very important. They help students stay healthy and prevent preventable diseases.”
Consumption of unsafe food and water is a leading cause of diarrhea and infections in Cambodian children. It can contribute to malnutrition by interfering with the body’s ability to absorb important nutrients.
Samrong Primary School Principal Choeun Bunchhen is doing everything to keep his students healthy. He says he has seen many positive changes at Samrong Elementary School during his tenure, but says improving the school’s hygiene standards has been one of the most significant developments.
In addition to upgrading school infrastructure, WFP has also conducted food safety and hygiene training for key school staff, including school principals, storekeepers and cooks. These training courses include learning about food storage, handling fresh produce, safe food preparation practices, and basic good hygiene and sanitation.
“The training provided by WFP and the construction of the new kitchen and dining room have been very important in increasing our knowledge of food hygiene and safety. This knowledge keeps kids sane and alert in the classroom,” says Bunchhen.
Having worked at the school for many years, he has seen the impact school meals have on children and their families.
“Children actually attend school more often when safe and nutritious food is provided through the school’s feeding program, as this helps ease the burden on lower-income parents. Because of this, our school has lower absenteeism and dropout rates,” says Bunchhen. “And that also relieves poor parents.”
Veung Chatt, a local smallholder farmer, is committed to ensuring that all school children have the opportunity to understand that safe, healthy food contributes to better educational outcomes.
“I received very little education. As a result of the civil war, when I was growing up there was no childcare and no good facilities at school for children, so I had to drop out in the second grade. Now I want to help kids in my community overcome the barriers and get the kind of education I didn’t have,” he explains.
“Safe and nutritious meals are really important and a huge contributor to growth and learning. Although this may be a remote area, our children still deserve good food and an opportunity to learn about good hygiene practices.”
Parents have also noticed these improvements. Set Bonai, mother of 11-year-old Chep Sinet, who is in fifth grade at Samrong Primary School, is delighted with the changes implemented over the past year.
“These excellent and clean facilities benefit all the children in the school. They especially love the kitchen and I’m really excited about the new hand washing area that will allow Sinet to wash their hands constantly. It makes me feel safer sending my daughter back to school, knowing she’s less likely to get sick,” says Bonai.
Bonai is also happy that her daughter gets a safe and nutritious school meal every day because she believes it can help shape her future. “I want all my children to get a good education and have a good chance of getting a better job. That is what all parents want for their children. And good nutrition is important because when children are full they are healthy and when they are healthy they learn well.”
“I want to be a teacher when I grow up,” says Sinet. “To make this dream come true, I have to study hard and eat healthy. I will do my best!”
WFP and USDA are working together to help Sinet and children across Cambodia improve their diets and gain access to safe and healthy school meals.