by Kim Green
According to a 2015 report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), chronic malnutrition afflicts around 32% of Cambodian children under five. That figure is even higher in the rural north: More than half of Stung Treng children suffer impaired growth and cognitive development because of nutrient deficiencies, an effect known as "stunting," and more than a third are underweight.
Most brain development happens in a child’s first two years. If a baby misses out on the right nutrition in those early years (or during the mother’s pregnancy), body and brain can’t develop properly. Often, the damage is irreversible. Stunted children are more vulnerable to illness and early death, and to a lifelong decreased mental capacity, productivity, and earning potential.
It’s a preventable tragedy: millions of Cambodians going hungry amid a sea of abundance, in a country with rich soil and bountiful rivers. But even highly productive rice farming communities are vulnerable to droughts and flooding; some farmers lose their fields to developers, or sell land to pay off debt when rice prices plummet.
Sometimes, malnutrition is a more hidden problem—enough calories consumed, but not the right kinds.
Stung Treng produce market
In the traditional Cambodian diet, rice is such a staple that the word “rice” is shorthand for food itself: When Khmers say we are hungry, they say, “Klean bai”—“hungry for rice.” Many rural families eat mostly rice and small river fish, and during the dry season, they may get no protein at all. And they often know very little about nutrition—or have no way to get a wide variety of nutrient-rich foods—which is why micronutrient deficiencies are so common in rural communities.
Two things could make a huge difference:
EDUCATION: Local governments and aid groups need to do a better job of getting the word out that the quality of nutrition is just as important as the quantity of food eaten—especially for children. This includes educating mothers about the importance of breastfeeding and of eating a nutrient-rich diet while pregnant and while nursing.
ACCESS: Education is little help if families are too exhausted to plant vegetables or have no money to buy them in the market. Two thousand riels per person—fifty cents a day—is all it would take for every family to afford enough fruit, vegetables, and proteins to consume a healthy diet and ensure their children a better start in life.
SWDC cooks prepare lunch.
The SWDC Nutrition Program
Chantha Nguon and Dara Chan Kim, the founders of the Stung Treng Women's Development Center in rural Stung Treng province, are determined that no one who passes through the gates will spend another day hungry. They fill the belly first. Then they turn to health care, education, and livelihood.
In 2007, SWDC launched its nutrition program, to educate SWDC women about healthy eating—for themselves and their families. They offer employees a daily lunch with high nutritional value and key micro- and macronutrients represented. Studies have shown that good nutrition improves productivity: workers have more energy and miss fewer days due to illness. And at SWDC, offering a free lunch saves employees money and time.
They also provide children at the center's kindergarten with two healthy meals a day—breakfast and lunch. This ensures that they will eat a healthy enough diet for their bodies and minds to grow properly, even if they don’t receive adequate nutrition at home.
Lunchtime at the SWDC kindergarten
Over the years, SWDC's founders have seen astonishing improvements in academic performance when children new to the center begin eating twice a day at school.
They buy all meat, fish, and produce locally and train the SWDC cooks how to prepare delicious, nutritious meals in an on-site outdoor kitchen.
When a person is hungry, nothing else matters. A starved weaver cannot work. A malnourished child cannot grown and learn. The body wastes, and the eyes dim. As does hope. For a very poor person, hunger is priority one, the one problem that must be addressed before any other.
Chantha Nguon instructing a cook in the SWDC café kitchen