PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – About 5 million Cambodians are undernourished. This costs the country up to $400 million every year.
That is the dollar cost to a human tragedy, according to a new report by UNICEF, the World Food Program, and Cambodia’s Council for Agricultural and Rural Development.
The price of malnutrition – $250-400 million a year – is around 2 percent of the country’s total annual GDP. This is money that could go towards improving roads, power, and schools.
Stunting, or chronic malnutrition, is a real economic burden. Not only do nutrition deficiencies cause children to grow up to smaller as adults, but they can suffer as adults from chronic weakness and anemia.
More than 3.3 million working age adults suffer from these conditions – decreasing their output by a potential $138 million.
In addition to degrading the population’s health, malnutrition over the next decade will kill 60,000 children outright.
Within the first two years of life, it is crucial to give children proper nutrition, says the World Food Program (WFP). When this “window of opportunity” is taken advantage of, the WFP says vitamin deficiencies decrease and risk of chronic malnutrition drops.
Cambodia’s Health Minister, Mam Bunheng, has called the improvement of health for Cambodian citizens a top priority.
But in many provinces, this is not always easy.
Poor nutrition stems from feeding practices, poor hygiene, and disease.
The WFP and UNICEF produced programs which use schools to influence these practices.
Recently the WFP received funding by the US Department of Agriculture.
This recent grant of $20 million is to help provide meals to 150,000 primary school pupils in 800 schools in the provinces of Battambang, Kampong Thom and Siem Reap.
The school feeding program has been running since 1999, said Kong Kannitha, national education program officer for the WFP.
Since inception “the program has gotten bigger in different ways,” said Edith Heines, WFP’s deputy country director.
To date, the USDA has granted roughly $47 million has been granted to schools across Cambodia.
“When students arrive they receive a hot meal before the classes start,” said Ms. Heines. “The objective is to increase enrollment and that children attend school.”
“One of the problems is that, if you don’t provide breakfast in these poor areas, children go home when they get hungry, and they don’t come back,” she said. “We want to make sure that, while they’re in school, they aren’t hungry so that they can pay attention.”
“At the school level they are very happy and appreciative of the support,” said WFP’s Kong Kannitha.
In June, Cambodia’s new minister of Education, Hang Chuon Naron, visited Kampon Thom province to help serve food as part of the program.
“Of course, with the food that we give, we look at a balanced diet and make sure that it is a healthy meal,” said
Ms.Heines, of WFP. Often it is a more nutritious meal than what they would get at home, she added.
“It comprises of protein and micronutrients and enough calories,” she said.USDA contributions to the WFP started in 2001. But, according to Ms.Heines, the challenges always lie with trying to get funding.
“It is not a given that we get the grants,” she said. “We have to compete like everyone else and make our proposal as competitive and as solid as possible.”
Cambodia’s Ministry of Education has taken major responsibility for the WFP school feeding program by monitoring in provinces, managing the project and creating a sustainability plan with WFP. This is a move towards a gradual handover to the government, which will come in the future, said Ms. Heines.