Food is one of the most basic needs that every human must meet. For many of the students in rural Cambodia, a country where 32% of children are malnourished, that need is instead only a daily hope: hope that the harvest will be good that year, hope that their parent won’t be laid off, hope that they’ll be able to find enough in the forest to fill their stomachs that week. At the Ponheary Ly Foundation, we know that a hungry child cannot learn. That’s why we served 153,000 bowls of food last year, because those steady school meals keep our students healthy and free of the psychological impact of food insecurity.

When we first started working with Koh Ker Primary School in 2006, no child was healthy enough – full enough – to learn; at recess they would opt for napping at their desks rather than going outside to play. They were often absent, having to go forage for food in the forest instead of come to school. Koh Ker became the place where we got a full understanding of how critical breakfast is to children with food security problems.

We fed them and then fed them some more. We treated their illnesses, brought in clean water and toilets, and kept feeding them. Finally, students were able to pay attention in class, to have enough energy to play outside. But when they returned from their two month school holiday, every child was again sick from malnutrition. We promised ourselves that would never happen again, which is why we have summer school in order to continue feeding those children all year round. 

Now, all schools in Cambodia have been closed since March 16 due to Covid-19 precautions and we’re finding innovative ways to keep that promise. For our students at Romcheck, Koh Ker, and Knar, not only are they losing the school year, but more terrifying than that – they’re losing their daily meal at school. The trauma of food insecurity lasts a lifetime, which is why PLF has pulled all our resources to keep our students safe and fed during this time.

Because we cannot provide daily meals at school, we are now providing non-contact food drops every 10 days. These drops are getting food and hygiene supplies regularly into the hands of the children and are helping us keep a pulse on how the community is doing. Our food drops have been so successful that Cambodia’s Minister of Education has taken note of how we’re doing them and passed along best practices as we developed our protocols. 

Our older students know all too well the lasting damage done by food insecurity and we’ve been inspired by the work they are doing on the front line in their communities. Our university students, back at home after Universities closed,  have been on call to unload, bundle and distribute food since day 1 and some of them, who hail from villages where PLF has no presence, have  pushed us to help them deliver much needed information, soap and dry goods to the most fragile families in their home communities.

This month we have assisted our teachers in the field with getting exercises out to their primary school students (most of whom have no way to access online classes) and so now study packs are going out every week. We’re not sure how much this will actually help students academically, but it is the only thing currently that can be done. Probably a good number of them will need to repeat the year but we are not as concerned about that as we are with keeping them well until then.

We are committed to maintaining the food drops for our most vulnerable students until public school starts again, which by all indications,  will be November at the new school year.  

By then we will have delivered over 17,000 food packets at a cost of more than $120,000.00

School is the Answer has always been our motto, it’s something we believe at our very core. But, for the moment, Food is the Answer because as we learned so long ago at Koh Ker, for most of these children, if there’s no food, there’s no school. 

We want to take a moment to praise the unsung heroes on our team who are doing the calculating, the purchasing, the spraying down, the loading, the unloading, the masking up, the gloving up, the bundling, the giving, the being careful with the eggs,  the ticking people off a list and then doing it all again the next day in the epic heat. The effort has been herculean but there’s so much love in it that it feels like child’s play. 

We will not soon forget these days – We are so proud of the way we are holding ourselves and each other through this time. To our supporters and donors, we say thank you 1000 times… Without you, our capable hands would be empty.