Located on Street 103 in Toul Tompong, a house with a sign at the front reading “Buck Hunger” looks just like a small local eatery serving breakfasts to hungry Cambodian from a house. The difference? The customers do not pay for their food. For almost ten years, this soup kitchen has been giving meals to tens of thousands of underprivileged people, mostly children. Many of them solely depend on the meal it provides for their daily calories because it is their only meal of the day. Although no one has actually expected Buck Hunger to last that long, the place is always facing closure no thanks to the lack of fund and inflation, reports Taing Rinith.
This year, Chheoum Sreytouch, who lives with her mother and four siblings in a small room located near the sewage canal in Toul Tompong, is turning 14 but she is very short for her age because her family is so poor that the children do not have enough nutritious food to eat. Her father passed away last year, and the family cannot rely only upon the meagre income of her eldest brother, who works as a labourer. So, every day after school, Sreytouch has to walk around in her neighborhood to look beverage cans and plastic bottles which she will sell for some money.
On a Wednesday’s morning, when she gets up at six, Sreytouch does not wash her face or brush her teeth but run to a house about 200 metres away, carrying her toddler brother while her 7-year-old sister is running behind her. There is small sign in the front with some English words, but Sreytouch does not understand what it says. She only knows that it is a place where she can eat breakfast without paying, five days per week.
Many children and old people are already there, but Sreytouch is lucky enough to find three empty seats. Today’s menu contains kuy teav or white noodle soup with some pork and meatballs, along with some grapes and tamarind for dessert. When the “waiter” brings her the food, she is eating it slowly, trying to savour every bite.
“I am happy that we could make it on times,” Sreytouch tells Good Times 2. “If we are late, there will not be any food left, and we will be hungry until lunch.”
Sitting at the same table is Som Nan, a 7-year-old son of a construction worker. Nan finished his food in 2 minutes, and then goes to the kitchen at the back of the house and, like Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist, asks Om Doeun, the kitchen supervisor and Buck Hunger manager, for “some more”. There is some food left, so she gave him more.
“Usually, we cannot give them extra food because there is none left,” says Doeun, 41. “It is very hard for me to say no to them, and if we could, we would give them all the food they want.”
“If I am not mistaken, we are the only soup kitchen in town that feeds anyone who is hungry. The food is usually served at around 8:00, whenever all our tables are full.”
However, most of the customers are children, who are much in need of food and nutrition for growing.
Buck Hunger was founded in 2011 as non-profit NGO and a full service, sit down restaurant by Johnny Phillips, an American retiree “with 40 years of commercial Food and Beverage experience”. Its mission, Johnny says, is to provide free food to those that need it most
“Many Cambodians are hungry and lack hope for their future,” Johnny writes on his website. “It is all common to witness adults and children begging for scraps on your plate and searching the trash piles for edible food.”
Buck Hunger staff were drawn from a pool of unskilled, unemployed Cambodian youths and taught how to operate a simple food service outlet. They are now highly skilled in sanitation, service, table clearing, food prep and cleanup.
Doeun, the manager, tries her best to come up with a different dish every day, with adequate nutrition for her “customers”. But, it getting more and more difficult every day due to the increase in prices although their monthly fund of $2,000, coming from EXO Foundation and some generous people in Singapore, does not go down.
“We used to feed 100-200 children, but we can only do 50-60 now,” says Doeun, 41. “Our daily budget for the food is only around $25, and we have to pay $350 for the house rent.”
“The higher cost of living also result in the decrease of our staff. There used to be 20 of us, but now there are only 7.”
Each of the staff at Buck Hunger receives only around $60 dollars per month, but all of them are doing their work because of their sympathy for the poor children and old people. Pan Vandeth, the 28-year-old coordinator (and waiter), for example, work at Buck Hunger to help the underprivileged children find a better future, although it means working in two places to support his living. In addition, he gives these children free English language lesson for a few hours every day.
“Free breakfast means a lot to these poor children,” Vandeth says. “It gives them the energy to study and help them save money for books and stationery.”
“I am also from a poor family, so I understand how being very hungry feel like. But, more importantly, we cannot predict what these children could grow up to be in the future. Some of them may be the ones who will be able to make the world a better place.”
Doeun, Buck Huger manager, says there is not a single day on which she is not worried about the fate of the soup kitchen. There are so many times that she has to spend the money out of her own pocket to feed the hungry people when the budget is gone over.
“We never expected that our kitchen would last this long,” Doeun says. “After so many years, there are so many people depending on us because the meal we give them is the only one of their day.”
“We need at least $500 more per month to give these children and old people need. Otherwise, we will continue struggling every day, and we will not know until when we last.”