Traditional cakes such as num ansorm and palm cake, among other hand-held Cambodian cakes, can be found being sold in Ang Rokar Primary School in Boeung Tranh Kang Choeung commune, Takeo province’s Samrong district.

This practice abides by the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport’s guidelines. They have established a ban on the sale of six types of food in educational institutions nationwide due to their detrimental effects on students’ health.

Sok Chanthorn, 45, a resident of Hang Heng village, Boeung Tranh Kang Tbong commune, in Takeo province’s Samrong district, shared her perspective.

“At first, I experienced some tension when I started selling a reduced variety of goods. I used to earn a significant amount when I sold a diverse range of products. However, after limiting my selection, profits initially fell. Yet, the situation has now stabilised”.

Chanthorn revealed she has been a food vendor at Ang Rokar Primary School for over a decade. Originally, she only offered packaged cakes and sweet beverages to pupils.

But a meeting initiated by the school principal about a change in products led her to adapt. Accustomed to the sales of packaged cakes, she found the transition demanding.

“There was a dip in sales initially,” she admitted. “However, after receiving guidance, my income has returned to its previous levels, and students now prefer healthier options”.

She currently offers an assortment of handmade cakes. The list includes ansorm chek, ansorm chrouk, palm cake, boiled sweet potato, boiled corn, num korm, and num bot, to name just a few.

While some are bought from the market, others are her own creations. She firmly believes that traditional Cambodian cakes pose no health threats.

Keen to promote these cakes, she says: “I understand the effects of food on the health of both students and adults”. I’m well-informed about the Ministry of Education’s ban.”

She added: “I often see related posts on social media. I make it a point to inform my students about the ban. And if their parents wish to purchase, I remind them too”.

Norng Sothavy, the principal of Ang Rokar Primary School, has been encouraging food vendors towards a change in their offerings for over five years.

The journey hasn’t been without its challenges. The vendors’ resistance was a significant hurdle.

“But for the health and safety of our students, I persevere, no matter how long it takes,” Sothavy said.

Before the ban, vendors used to sell cola and similar sugary drinks. However, due to the school’s consistent efforts, such beverages have been off the menu for the past two years.

Sothavy emphasised: “Our children might spend 500 riel ($0.13) on a snack. But when they fall ill, the medicine can cost up to 450,000 riel. We’ve been educating them on this cost difference, and the feedback has been encouraging”.

Her proactive stance on the issue is evident. She frequently conducts monthly meetings with the food vendors at the school.

To amplify the impact, a food control committee has been formed, highlighting the importance of collective effort.

“Teaching staff, as well, play a part in this educational effort,” she added.

The success of this initiative didn’t materialise overnight. It’s the result of five years of unwavering commitment.

Traditional Cambodian cakes, now available in the school, offer a diverse range. But it’s more than just food. These cakes help children reconnect with their cultural roots.

The school’s fencing prevents pupils from accessing external vendors. If snacks from outside are brought in, the committee logs the names of those students. During the flag salutation hour, these students are asked to stand by the flagpole.

Sothavy explained: “This is not to humiliate but to instil a sense of responsibility. Over time, we hope they make better choices”.

Outside the school’s purview, she resorts to social media, sharing reminders for the students. The messages may remind them to make healthier choices.

Additionally, signage highlighting the education ministry’s food guidelines is prominently displayed.

Ros Soveacha, spokesman for the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport, spoke on their stringent food policies. Six categories of foods are explicitly prohibited.

These include expired foods, alcohol and drugs, foods without a clear origin, certain beverages and sugary snacks, specific sweets, and a variety of desserts.

“The ministry believes these bans are crucial,” he said.

He underscored: “They’ve substantially curbed food poisoning incidents by encouraging healthier food choices, supporting both health and intellectual growth”.

The ministry ardently appeals to educators to prioritise student health, a vital determinant of learning quality.

Furthermore, the ministry has incorporated health topics into the curriculum from Kindergarten through Grade 12. They continue to urge the widespread promotion of these guidelines.

Soveacha reflected: “This mission began in the previous mandate, aiming to uplift student and educator health”.

He stressed that the education ministry is grateful for the support from other ministries, institutions, development partners, civil society groups, and the private sector.

Their collective efforts have advanced educational health and food safety in schools, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

This collaboration underscores the importance of everyone, including students, playing a role.