Food systems transformation in Cambodia
Malnutrition is an inter-generational problem. Inadequate nutrition among children can be an issue that persists into adulthood, negatively affecting the next generation and leading to a lifetime of health problems for all.
A 2014 study of 2,000 primary school students in Cambodia found that up to half of them lacked zinc, iron and folate, deficiencies linked to difficulties in child growth and development. Compounding this is the fact that unhealthy snacks – fried, high in saturated fats and with improper nutrition information – commonly have been sold in school areas, with limited restrictions.
His Excellency Sok Silo, the SUN Government Focal Point in Cambodia, led a dialogue during the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit, organized with the help of the Cambodian Food Manufacturers Association and the SUN Business Network. Among the main takeaways of the dialogue was that the private sector has a critical role to play in helping achieve good nutrition in Cambodia at all stages of the value chain, including in shaping the food environment and meeting consumer demand. This has been a key component of the SUN Movement’s work in Cambodia, with the SUN Business Network actively seeking help from local businesses in transforming nutrition work in the country.
Another priority for Cambodia has been changing people’s attitudes towards nutrition and the foods they eat, H.E. Silo said.
“Behaviour change is very critical,” he said. “We need to do something to make people change their minds from eating what they want to eating for their health. In Cambodia, we have surplus food because of good agricultural production, but how do we educate people to eat healthy food? It is difficult, and we need help from the SUN Movement for that.”
Serving as both the SUN Government Focal Point and National Convenor for food systems has given H.E. Silo a rare dual perspective on linking food systems, food security and nutrition. His high position in the Government of Cambodia, as Secretary General of the Council for Agricultural and Rural Development, also has helped him generate government support and get critical decision makers to the table.
In the two years since the UNFSS, H.E. Silo has been working to turn that support into a transformation of the food system in support of nutrition and food security. Those efforts have taken many forms, but one programme that has combined the private sector, civil society, the United Nations and the Government has been an innovative effort to use crickets to boost childhood nutrition.
Commonly eaten as a fried roadside snack, crickets are a good – if largely unrecognized – source of nutrition. They are high in proteins, vitamins and minerals (the elusive zinc and iron in particular). A 2023 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that supplementing children’s diets with house crickets could completely eliminate the zinc problem. Crickets also have been a food staple of the Indigenous People of Cambodia for centuries, with the practice of eating these insects dating back to at least the tenth century.
While fried crickets are not necessarily a healthy food staple, Agri House, a certified women-owned enterprise founded and owned by Ms. Lundy (Dy) Chou, has helped transform crickets into a nutritious food ingredient, with nutritionally balanced baked snacks designed to overcome nutritional deficiency. Packaging provides reliable nutrition information and healthy messaging, and the popularity of these treats among children is helping undercut the unhealthy snacks already in the market – and starting to change Cambodians’ behaviours and attitudes towards nutrition.
The products also have helped smallholder farmers in Cambodia climb out of poverty and into the productive leg of the food system, which in turn has helped localize the transformation of the Cambodian food system.
At the outset, Ms. Dy and her Agri House team participated in the United Nations World Food Programme Innovation Accelerator Sprint Programme, a six-month programme that helps innovators reach proof of concept and prepare for implementation. Teams involved in the programme receive funding, mentorship and access to a global network of partners and advisers.
Dy and her team worked with the SUN Business Network (SBN) in Cambodia throughout the effort. The SBN was founded in Cambodia in 2021 by the Council for Agricultural and Rural Development through a partnership with the Government of Cambodia and the World Food Programme. Its purpose is to unite forward-thinking private businesses in the food sector, such as Agri House, to accelerate nutrition success throughout the country by adapting the food system to the local context.
The company’s Nhom Sunny (Sunny Snack) is enhanced with cricket nutrients to provide healthier alternatives for school-aged children. Agri House also created two human-like cricket characters to help deliver messaging on healthy eating.
Nutritional flyers accessible to those with low literacy were disseminated via the chabhouys, or local micro grocery stores. Store owners changed their behaviour after reading the nutritional flyers and started promoting healthier snacks in their stores, and children said that the flyers helped them better understand good nutrition and pay more attention to healthy eating habits. Parents and wholesalers have begun asking about the use of crickets as a nutritional source and where they can buy the treats.
With a targeted price point based on the daily disposable income children have typically spent on unhealthy deep-fried snacks, Agri House has provided equitable and affordable access to a snack food that contributes to a balanced diet for children 6 to 12 years old.
The supply chain is focused on creating impact, with the business taking a gender- and socially inclusive approach to all aspects of the work. This includes ensuring that families, farmers, government officials and nutritional specialists are included in design and decision-making processes to ensure that solutions are tailored to local contexts.
Crickets are a form of sustainable production, with significant benefits in the reduction of greenhouse gas, land and water use compared to chicken, pork and beef. The crickets also are part of a micro-circular economy, producing frass (waste) that is then used to grow the leafy green vegetables they eat.
The country is rich with fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods, H.E. Silo said. The trick has been getting children to bring them to school. The country’s National Nutrition Day, which it has been conducting for nearly a decade, has made efforts in that regard. Scaling up healthy food projects like Nhom Sunny also is important, he said.
Cambodia has a long history of supporting food systems transformation and elevating nutrition, with discussion of food systems as a national priority going back more than five years within the country’s Technical Working Group for Food Security and Nutrition. Most recently, the many dialogues, workshops and trainings the Government and partners have put on have helped people increase their understanding of food systems and their relationships with food security and nutrition