“When we first found out about the dumpsite, the children asked for one meal a day and the possibility to go to school’’ PSE’s founders Christian and Marie-France des Pallières used to say when describing how PSE started. Therefore, building a place to feed the children was one of the first steps taken, and it still represents a key part of our action today: all the children supported by PSE receive at least one meal a day.
I had the chance to meet Sinoun, the head of the canteen, who told me more about how this large organisation works.
As a young French woman, the canteen is a place that brings back many memories: lunches with friends, spinach or fries, supervisors and the noise... At PSE, it is somewhat similar - but in a Khmer way. It has multiple functions: refectory, kitchen and sometimes even classroom; it is a real space to live for all those who live and work at PSE!
Its general objective is to guarantee the nutritional well-being of children. Everything is in place to make sure they don't go hungry and get enough nutrients and energy to work well.
The canteen, a machine to destroy hunger
Sitting in her small office, situated at the same level as the kitchens, Sinoun has a photo of her with Papy on the Stueng Mean Chey dumpsite. Indeed, Sinoun was one of the first children taken care of by PSE in 1995. She and the canteen have a long love story!
She tells me that in the beginning, they were only about 75 children going to eat in the little hut built on the dumpsite by Christian and Marie-France des Pallières. Then 200, 500, 1,000 ... Today, the buildings have expanded, and the canteen welcomes the 6,500 children in our programmes, as well as the PSE staff, over than 6,000 servings are dished up every day! What Sinoun likes most is to help those who need it. That is why she loves her job so much.
To feed the students and the staff, several steps are necessary, including preparation of the menus and determining the required quantities.
The canteen’s menus are prepared a year in advance in collaboration with the PSE medical team. Rice, chicken, vegetables... The meals are always extremely well balanced and fully comply with the regulations introduced by UNICEF. Although the menus must meet certain criteria, the cooks always try to prepare meals that appeal to children. They also have a notebook to keep all the information that could be useful in the future and to be able to improve the functioning of the canteen from year to year.
At the start of each school year, Sinoun is advised of the number of students enrolled at PSE by the teaching staff. Thus, she can calculate the quantities of food needed, and she can also prepare the material and the coming menus in advance. If many students are absent, she is also notified quickly by the teaching staff. This is an effective method that allows each member of her team to organise and anticipate, and above all, to waste nothing.
At 3:30am, the kitchens are already underway. The 32 members of staff have to prepare, serve and deliver meals to the PSE centre and to the surrounding state schools where some of children supported by PSE go. Three hours later, the dishes are put in trucks and taken from the canteen to the different schools. The trucks serve 25 state schools every day. At the same time, some members of the canteen staff stay and welcome the suppliers who come to deliver the produce for the next menus. The products are fresh every day and come from the local market.
The first meal served in the canteen is breakfast at 7am. But the most tiring part of the day is lunch.
At 11am the bell rings at PSE, marking the end of the morning. Several hundred students then rush to the canteen for lunch. At PSE, every child has the right to at least one meal a day. For some it is breakfast, for others lunch. Everyone can eat, whether they attend school in the PSE centre, a state school or a Paillote. No one is forgotten, not even the children in the most distant schools. Since the PSE trucks cannot deliver food to all state schools, PSE has implemented a voucher system that allows children to have a free meal directly in their school. In exchange, PSE pays compensation to the schools concerned.
The boarders are the ones who benefit most from the canteen since they sleep at PSE and eat there in the morning, at lunchtime and in the evening every day of the week. For them, the system never changes, except on Sundays when the staff do not work. The boarders then prepare their own meals with the help of their supervisors, a friendly moment appreciated by all. Men Tola, 12, likes to participate in these activities “Once I learned to cut vegetables”. Sinet, 16, has never cooked, but he often helps to clean up: “I like the canteen because it is good and above all very clean".
Eating well also requires good hygiene. All the children must wash their hands before eating. For the staff, wearing a cap, a mask, an apron, and gloves is mandatory. Everything is arranged to avoid spreading bacteria.
Before leaving the canteen, everyone does their own dishes. The supervisors check that the children are not throwing anything away. Waste is strictly prohibited at PSE, it is one of the first rules that you learn when you arrive in the centre. The children know it by heart and do not fail to make remarks to those who try to throw some food in the trash. Sinoun is very proud of the children's attitude to food waste. She also points out that waste has gone from 30 kg to 2 kg a day in recent years.
Taking care of all of this requires the help of many people: a manager, a supervisor who controls the kitchen, a stock and supply manager, cooks and assistant cooks. Everyone at PSE knows them. They are easily recognisable in their green apron and white cap.
The PSE canteen also has a social role since most of the employees are the parents of children taken care of by the association.
The importance of eating well
The canteen also operates according to the rhythm of Khmer celebrations. Let’s not forget that PSE is a Cambodian school! Thus, for Pchum Ben, Ancestors Day, and the Khmer New Year, the two most important celebrations in Cambodia, special dishes are prepared, for the enjoyment of both the smallest and the oldest ones who eat there. This year, we ate fried noodles for Pchum Ben for instance!
Food has an important place in Cambodian culture. Actually, the first thing security guards ask us when we walk through the gate is “Have you eaten already?” Everyone has something to say about their favourite dishes. I went to investigate among the children in the centre. “What I prefer are vegetables and rice” said Sinet, 16. A little further on, four students did not hesitate to share their opinions “We especially like fried food: fried chicken, fried pork, fried eggs ... ''. As for Sinoun, her favourite is Prahort: eggs with fermented fish.
It is very important for Sinoun to give all that is necessary to the children. She knows their stories and knows that not all of them has enough to eat. For some, the PSE meal is the only meal they have during the day.
Marguerite Eloy, volunteer at PSE