SIEM REAP – Among the spinach crops at a rural Cambodian school garden, children test their maths skills while weighing produce – but as food prices rise, the vegetable patch has become a safety net for struggling families.

Long before Covid-19 restrictions ravaged the economy, malnutrition and poverty stalked Cambodia’s youth, the legacy of decades of conflict and instability following the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal rule in the 1970s.

Food insecurity has worsened since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stoked global shortages and inflation.

The World Food Programme (WFP) says the prices of local staples have shot up in the past year: duck eggs by more than 20 per cent and cooking oil by almost 40 per cent.

Noodle seller Chhon Puthy, 31, has lost half her income during the pandemic and worries about her children’s health.

“We parents had to reduce our rations sometimes,” said the mother-of-two from the village of Chroy Neang Nguon, about two hours from Siem Reap.

In recent months, her family has come to rely on the garden and free breakfast programme at her children’s school to ease the financial pressure.

“This community depends on the meal because every morning parents are busy with farming and could not cook for their kids,” she said.

Garden lifeline

Remote schools in Siem Reap province use the gardens to teach pupils life skills such as cultivation and cooking.

“I learn about growing vegetables, making organic fertiliser, how to work in soil,” 12-year-old Seyha told AFP, adding that the know-how has helped improve her family’s own vegetable patch.

More than 1,000 schools around Cambodia have meal programmes supported by the WFP, with around 50 learning gardens set up with help from global rights group Plan International.

Before each day’s lessons, students are served a free breakfast of rice and fish soup with vegetables grown in the garden.