Free Lunch Comes at a Cost for City Soup Kitchen Founder

One by one they shuffle in, some barefoot, some shirtless, all hungry.

Once through the door of Phnom Penh’s newest, and perhaps smallest, soup kitchen, the more than 250 children who come here to eat lunch daily go straight to the sink.

“That’s the only rule—kids have to wash their hands,” said 63-year-old Oklahoma restaurateur Johnny Phillips.

Since its first day of operation in early December, the non-profit kitchen “Buckhunger” has provided nearly 22,000 lunchtime meals to hundreds of needy children and adults for free. There is no record of who comes and goes, and no condition to being fed. If you need more than one plate, it’s yours.

“This is a place where anyone is welcome,” Mr. Phillips said as several men walked through the door on a recent day, washed their hands and sat down.

Some of his 21 young helpers were homeless themselves be­fore Mr. Phillips got them in­volved in the kitchen. Now they are being trained in cooking, cleaning and restaurant service skills. He has also turned over the upstairs floor of his establishment to eight of his staff for housing.

Twenty-two-year-old Sin Dara­vuth, who acts as Mr. Phillips’ translator three days a week, is using the $5 a day he makes at Buckhunger to help pay for his Tesol master’s degree.

“This place provides knowledge to students who can get out of their comfort zone and learn skills and earn a salary,” Mr. Da­ra­­vuth said of the operation.

Sitting at a table with two school students, and shoveling a plate of sliced avocado, egg-fried pork, carrot and rice into his mouth, 13-year-old Srey Pov said he came to the kitchen from the nearby gas station where he begs for money and sleeps at night. His one daily meal is now eaten at Buckhunger, he said.

“The food here is delicious,” Srey Pov said in a hushed voice. “If I get two plates of food here, I’m not hungry for the rest of the day.”

And that’s the type of impact Mr. Phillips said that he was looking to make when he moved to Cam­bodia in October, looking to start a new life after his retirement.

“I’m sure my family back home loves me at Christmas, but they just don’t have time for me anymore,” Mr. Phillips said in a mild southern drawl. “And I wasn’t ready to play golf and watch TV all day.

“So I came here to start a new family; I just didn’t expect it to get this big,” he said, admitting that because he didn’t want to wade through an administrative laby­rinth, he isn’t legally recognized as an NGO in Cambodia.

He also didn’t expect to go broke. With only several thousand dollars left in his personal savings account and only a social security check coming in monthly, Mr. Phillips, a restaurant entrepreneur of 35 years, is afraid he won’t be able to afford his soup kitchen’s $6,000 monthly expenses much longer, and he could soon be serving his last free lunch.

“If no one else donates, I’ll only have money to keep this place open for the next 60 days,” he said, adding that he has been funding his kitchen with donations and from his own pocket.

Ventures like Mr. Phillips’ are risky because they could shutter at any minute, said James Su­therland, international coordinator for communications at Friends International, an NGO that currently trains 115 disadvantaged Cambodian youth in the hospitality industry.

“There are very few of these types of enterprises because they are not sustainable,” Mr. Suther­land said, adding that such operations often lack child protection policies and staff background checks.

“They keep giving and giving, but at some point the money runs out,” he said.

“There doesn’t appear to be a great deal of thought going into these.”





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