Cambodia: School Meals Supporting Scholars

School Meals — Nourishing dreams for every child

Jessica Lawson
World Food Programme Insight
7 min readOct 19, 2017


Students enjoying their breakfast in Cambodia. Photo: WFP/Ratanak Leng

A dish and spoon are not usually the first things that come to mind when thinking about the contents of a typical schoolbag. But for the children of Som Rong primary school in Siem Reap, Cambodia, a dish and spoon take pride of place every day beside their books and stationary. Each morning they line up in front of the classroom to receive a nutritious breakfast, thanks to support from WFP’s School Meals Programme.

Students enjoying some nutritious food. Photo: WFP/Ratanak Leng

Despite impressive economic growth during the last decade, primary school completion and secondary school enrolment rates across Cambodia still remain low. To support universal access to education, WFP has been providing nutritious school meals to Cambodian pre- and primary school children in rural and food- insecure communities since 2008. Supported by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) McGovern Dole Programme, WFP’s School Meals Programme helps contribute to increased enrolment, attendance, and retention in schools across Cambodia.

Boys playing before class. Photo: WFP/Ratanak Leng

The McGovern Dole Programme in Cambodia also provides training to teachers, school administrators, School Feeding committees, local authorities and communities. The efforts focus on improving the quality of literacy instruction and the learning environment, school administrative management, commodity management and food preparation as well as on raising awareness on the importance of education, nutrition, hygiene and sanitation.

Graduating to government support

“When I was in primary school, I received breakfast every morning before my class started. That breakfast came with rice cooked with split peas and canned fish mixed with morning glory. It was very delicious”

Thida Sim has fond memories of the daily breakfast at Som Rong primary that helped see her through grades 5 and 6 at a time when her family were particularly vulnerable. She also received a scholarship that provided 120 kg of rice every year following confirmation from her teacher that she attended 80% of her classes, part of a programme managed by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport with WFP to boost school attendance. While the WFP scholarship ended at primary level, the Royal Government of Cambodia has continued that support to enable Thida to continue her studies through secondary level.

Thida Sim, who used to receive school meals in primary school. Photo: WFP/Ratanak Leng

“I now receive 240,000 Riel (USD 60) a year from the Government scholarship. I have used this money to buy a bike and study materials. I give the rest of the money to my grandmother”

In 2013, WFP handed over significant responsibilities for implementing food scholarship to the Royal Government of Cambodia. WFP is working closely with the government to establish a nationally-owned school feeding programme by 2021.

Thida has continued her studies at secondary school. Photo: WFP/Ratanak Leng

Ensuring inclusion for students with disabilities

While enrolment is increasing across Cambodia, equitable access and quality education remain challenging for students with disabilities, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Growing up, Vo Pich who, along with three of her five brothers, is deaf, rarely interacted with anyone outside of her family members. She started her first grade at 13 when her school in Kampong Chhnang province started a Khmer sign language class in November 2015.

Vo Pich in her classroom. Photo: WFP/Ratanak Leng

She and her fellow students are receiving daily hot breakfast through WFP’s school meals programme. In a short time Vo Pich has gone from finding it difficult to express her feelings and needs to socialising with children of all ages and communicating effectively. Being able to access education in a country where deaf children rarely can will allow her to become more independent and help break down barriers for other children.

From school meal recipient to teacher and librarian

Proeun Sinoun grew up hungry, but is now a primary school teacher. Photo: WFP/Ratanak Leng

As one of seven children from a poor family in rural Cambodia, it was never a given that Proeun Sinoun would have the opportunity to finish her schooling. She recalls often going hungry during school and finding it difficult to focus on her studies as a result. During the 2004 -2005 school year, WFP began supporting Sinoun’s school with the School Meal Programme. This support allowed students from poor families, including Sinoun, her three sisters and two brothers, to receive breakfast every morning before classes started.

As a result, Sinoun was able to complete her education and go on to become a teacher and a librarian. She has now returned to work at her old school and to share her knowledge with the local community.

“As I like reading, I’m really happy to be a teacher-librarian for all of the students in my school. I hope I can help all students to improve their reading skills.”

Students enjoy a meal before class. Photo: WFP/Ratanak Leng

In addition to working as a teacher-librarian, Sinoun also helps her community by providing trainings to parents in her village on how to better support their children’s reading skills development, aiming to encourage reading habits both at school and at home. With her experience, Sinoun is a strong advocate for the value of education. She believes that the support she received helped her stay in school and get to where she is today.

She often shares her story to encourage parents in her village to keep their children in school. Her own journey does not end here — she is determined to continue her studies, especially of English, as she hopes one day to be able to teach English to others.

Students preparing for class with a hot meal. Photo: WFP/Ratanak Leng

Supporting the local community with home-grown school meals

As WFP’s role changes from implementing programmes like School Meals to building national capacity and enabling national ownership, WFP has encouraged communities to contribute to the School Meal Programme, including through incentives for cooks, who are often members of the local community (at least 15Kg of rice per month per cook).

To help diversify diets and educate future generations of Cambodia about nutrition, WFP is also helping to establish school gardens and to shift the school meals programme to a ‘home grown’ approach, which enables local smallholder farmers to sell their produce to nearby schools.

“I water morning glory two times a week. When we harvest it, we usually sell to the school cook,” Ratana Rom, 9. Photo: WFP/Ratanak Leng

Som Rong primary school shifted to home grown school meals in 2015; previously they received food commodities from WFP’s central stocks. Now, the school purchases vegetables, rice, fish, vegetable oil and salt from the surrounding community to cook for about 200 students. Sometimes, the school also harvests vegetables like morning glory and long bean peas from the school gardens that are taken care of by the students.

Students are now eating foods that have been grown close to their homes. Photo: WFP/Ratanak Leng

During the 2016–17 school year, the home grown school meals programme is being implemented in 84 schools located in Siem Reap, Oddar Meanchey, Kampong Thom and Preah Vihear provinces and provides a daily hot breakfast to some 17,200 pre-primary and primary school children. Local farmers, producers, suppliers and their families benefit from the programme as it provides opportunity for additional income, economic growth and job creation.

WFP and partner NGOs support the school gardens by providing seeds and help schools build facilities for the school gardens. Together with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), WFP develops guidance materials to enable the establishment of school gardens in schools across Cambodia.

Imagining a future that begins with food

Each year WFP invites children who benefit from our school meals programmes to participate in the annual Children’s Design Competition. In 2017, the theme is “Zero Hunger: Our Future Begins With Food” . Here, students from Reaksmey Samaki Primary School in Siem Reap Province proudly display some of the creative ideas the theme inspired in them. Thanks to the WFP School Meals Programme, and the support of USDA, a brighter future for thousands of children across Cambodia has already begun with food!

Students draw pictures of what zero hunger means to them. Photo: WFP/Ratanak Leng

FOOTNOTES: Stories by Ratanak Leng & Bushra Rahman, edited by Jeanne Spillane.

Find out more about WFP’s work in Cambodia.