Rovieng district, Preah Vihear province – In 2001, a 200-square-meter vegetable garden was built on the grounds of Rikreay Primary School in Rikreay commune’s Bos village. Over the next seven years, the garden produced cabbage, water greens and carrots for the daily breakfasts of 200 of the school’s students. Beginning in 2006, the World Food Program added rice to their free morning meal.
While Cambodian schools provide education, WFP rice and the vegetables from Rikreay Primary School’s garden, provide nourishment, help attentiveness and motivate students to attend school.
About half of Rikreay Primary School’s 500 students cannot afford breakfast, and when students do not eat they are restless and unproductive all morning, said Chan Vanary, a kindergarten teacher at the school.
“When they’re hungry, they don’t study well. They’re not feeling well and discipline is difficult,” she said.
On Wednesday, however, workmen began to raze a large section of the school’s vegetable garden to make way for a six-room schoolhouse funded by Prime Minister Hun Sen, Principal In Kinny said.
The workers dug foundation holes and began to dismantle the school’s large kitchen and storehouse where the morning meals were prepared daily, said Bernard Krisher, chairman of American Assistance for Cambodia, who funded the garden and kitchen. Krisher is also publisher of The Cambodia Daily.
At a time of global food shortages, national food price hikes and the WFP being forced to suspend its school feeding programs nationwide, Krisher said the destruction of the vegetable garden was tantamount to “desecration.”
In a news statement, Krisher accused the village officials who signed off on the building project of “neglecting the interests and welfare of the children by destroying the garden and the kitchen where the meals were cooked.”
In response, Krisher said that he was withdrawing all support for Rikreay Primary School, which included a cook, gardener and computer teacher. The vegetable garden was introduced to the school in 2001 when AAFC’s Rural Schools Project funneled $6,500 from Japan’s Postal Savings for International Voluntary Aid Program.
It is now up to local officials and the community “to determine and fund any return to feeding the children as they had been,” he added.
Principal In Kinny said on Saturday that the building project has now been halted and the foundation trench will be moved so as not to impede on the garden.
“Both [the new school building and the vegetable garden] are very important. I don’t want either to be cut off,” he said, standing in the upturned vegetable patch.
“It’s very important to feed vegetables to the kids and also to learn in a comfortable place,” second grade teacher Kou Kimsron said.
WFP Country Director Thomas Keusters said Sunday that without breakfast feeding programs teachers “have to cut the period of instruction short because kids are not paying attention any more.”
When WFP temporarily cut its breakfast program in January 2007, school attendance at participating schools across the country dropped by 20 percent within the month, Keusters said, adding that he expects the same dropout rate by end of May when the program again runs out of rice. WFP was providing breakfasts at 1,344 schools.
Kindergarten teacher Chan Vanary said she fears Rikreay’s student population could drop in half without their breakfast program.
Although Rikreay Primary School has enough WFP rice remaining in stock to feed children for another month, In Kinny said they would soon rely on the vegetable garden alone for breakfast.
Long Sovann, Preah Vihear provincial deputy governor, said Sunday that no additional funds are available to fund the vegetable garden.
Sixth grader Lmut Kimneang, 13, said she didn’t understand why officials built over the vegetable garden, which provides her breakfast most days. But even if the breakfast program runs dry, Lmut Kimneang said she will still try to attend school. “It is my future,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Chhorn Chansy)