oudong district, Kompong Speu province – In the remote villages of Kraing Ta Som and Kraing Sleng, some primary school students are going to school hungry, while others come in late or have dropped out of class all together, following the suspension of school-feeding programs, local officials said.
Attendance levels at Choumpou Proek primary school in Kraing Ta Som, a village about 70 km west of Phnom Penh, increased to almost 100 percent after the UN’s World Food Program introduced free school breakfasts last year, village chief Lor Pon said last Friday.
The halt of the WFP school-feeding program in early May due to the soaring cost of rice curtailed food supplies to 1,344 primary schools nationwide. At Choumpou Proek primary school rice stocks ran out last week, bringing the school breakfasts to a temporary end, Lor Pon said. Now many of the school’s 612 students come to school as late as 8 or 9 am, instead of at 6 am as before, while some have stopped coming all together, he said.
Fourth-grade student Sorn Channa, 15, and her sister Sorn Dy, 16, a sixth-grade student at the school, said their family cannot fill the gap left by the halt in school breakfasts. “Now I don’t eat breakfast at all,” Sorn Dy said. “I am hungry but we have no money to buy breakfast, so I just wait for lunch,” she added.
Her mother, Chan Phy, 45, said her family of seven does not have enough provisions to last until the next rice harvest at the end of the year and also had to sell a third of their previous crop.
“Our rice harvest is not enough to feed the family, but we need money for ceremonies such as weddings, so we sell some of our rice,” she said.
Chum Sophal, the Ministry of Education’s deputy director of primary schools, said Monday he did not know how the suspension of the WFP school-feeding program influenced student attendance and performance, but said a WFP and Unicef assessment is under way to evaluate the effects the stoppage is having.
In some provinces such as Kompong Speu, schools received the WFP aid for only one year, “so we cannot evaluate or compare” the difference in attendance since the feeding program stopped, he said.
In Kraing Sleng village, about 10 km from Kriang Ta Som, the Sangkum Seksa primary school provided free school breakfasts to its 1,084 students from October last year until food stocks were exhausted last week, principal Ton Sak said.
“I am worried that attendance of students will fall in the next two weeks, but now it is still fine because we just stopped,” he said.
Ket Chanto, education program manager for the NGO World Vision, said rising dropout rates among poor students and a decrease in health and concentration among students are likely effects of the halt in free school meals.
“I am afraid that many poor students who want to learn will lose hope,” he said.
World Vision, which runs educational programs in six provinces, has not done any comprehensive surveys on how high rice prices affect student attendance and performance, Ket Chanto said. But there have been reported cases of an increase in students dropping out in Preah Vihear, Kompong Thom and Kompong Chhnang provinces, he said.
Though there is no comprehensive data, WFP officials interviewed recently said cases of attendance levels dropping drastically following the shutdown of the school-feeding program had been reported in Kompong Speu, Siem Reap and Stung Treng provinces.
Fourteen-year-old Yong Kunthea, a sixth-grade student at Choumpou Proek primary school, said her teacher told students the free meals had ceased because of the rise in rice prices.
“I really want to have breakfast at school, otherwise I need to spend much money on my breakfast, or I have to eat from our leftover rice stock,” she said.
Yong Kunthea said she still goes to school early, but other students come to school much later, and five students from her class had dropped out to help their parents when the breakfasts stopped.
Her mother, Phoeung Chhing, 46, said rice prices and the cut in free school meals made it difficult for her to feed her family of eight.
Despite owning 2 hectares of paddy field, their rice stock had run out and they have to buy rice, she said.
The cost of rice bought directly from local farmers has risen during the past year from 1,500 riel to 2,500 riel per kilogram for first-quality rice, Phoeng Chhing said. Of the average 5,000 riel she earns daily, she now needs to spend 4,000 on meals for her family, she said.