A series of photo-essays with narration shining light on the lives of informal workers and other usually invisible individuals along the chain from producer to consumer, showcasing a day in their life and honoring the human stories behind Cambodia’s food systems.
Ever wonder where the food you eat comes from, and the hands involved in caring for it and bringing it to your plate? From farm to table and table to farm, wandering through the steps of the cycle of food, from pre-production to waste management (e.g. use of kitchen waste for fish feed, compost as organic fertilizer, etc), not forgetting all the farmers who populate the most of Cambodia’s countryside, the middlemen bringing vegetables to the city, the street sellers and market venders in the street markets, or phsars in Khmer language.
On our research and field trips we found many stories, from organic to conventional farmers, growing cabbages and all sorts of vegetables; visited shops selling seeds and fertilizers to homes where handmade food-processing is happening everyday, such as making health supplements from turmeric roots and honey. Orange-tainted fingers and wide smiles, wrinkled hands from decades of hard work on the land, these are the invisible heros taking care of our bodies’ nutrition. The food systems in Cambodia rely on a myriad of lives, informal workers and street sellers, old-school farmers and young innovative entrepreneurs.
We need to give visibility and more value to the people responsible for the food we eat. Not only as a way to research the origins of the ingredients ending up on our plate but, especially, to present the human side of the myriad of lives responsible for planting, growing, processing, transporting and selling them. Because in the end, all that we eat is food with stories inside.
Where do the seeds of the vegetables we eat come from? In a time when market forces disrupt the traditional ways of planting and influence farmers to be dependent on commercial seeds, it’s important to talk with the workers in the early stages of our food cycle. Pesticides and fertilizers, often applied in crops without the knowledge on how to safely use them, are adopted in fear of the produce not looking ‘good’ enough to the middlemen, putting in danger the health of both farmers and consumers. This is Soriya, who provides in her village in Kratie province the products farmers ask.
Meet grandma Chamreoun, a smallholder farmer who’s involved in all the steps of her production from growing to selling. She dropped the use of fertilizers and pesticides due to their effect on her husband’s health and the constant drop in prices. She’s proud of the safe organic vegetables she now produces and cares about her customers’ well-being – although they often tell her they don’t look as good as the chemically-grown ones they find in the market.
Meet Theavy, a young farmer who struggles with the pressures from the market to have vegetables looking uniformed and ‘polished’, ending up having to use more chemicals to be able to receive a proper income from all her hard work. Nevertheless, she is able to support her family despite all the challenges, even if now she’s only able to sell for $0.17 cents per kilogram.
Meet Reaksmey, known as the yellow fingers lady! Processing fresh produce is crucial for longer shelf-life and availability throughout the year, especially during the harsh dry season. Vegetable pickles or Prahok fermented fish paste are the pillars of Cambodian food security, and with the advent of new health trends she found a sustainable income through supplements made from the medicinal spice turmeric. Besides, new technologies play an important role to uplift the rural economy, and social media has been a life saver for her to reach new markets and communicate directly to consumers.
Meet Tona, a fundamental bridge between producers and consumers. She has the crucial job of buying vegetables in bulk from farmers and bringing them to the city to sell to market vendors, even if having to constantly juggle with prices and the uncertainty of dealing with perishable goods. Especially during the pandemic year where the main wholesale depot in Phnom Penh, Phsar Derm Kor, was shut down for stopping the spread of the virus – leaving her to sell along a national road on the city outskirts.
During these last years the rise of smartphone use and new apps changed the way we consume food, with the lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic increasing the number of people ordering their meals online. Delivery drivers became frontline workers, risking their own safety to provide for the ones stuck at home. A balance between a new type of livelihood, which allows people without options to get an extra source of income, and the rise of a new division between the ones who can afford and the ones who don’t. Meet Sengkaruna to have a glimpse of the life of one of many drivers we see rushing around town every single day.
Meet Hao, founder of Local4Local food distribution drive, and Ah Kea, one of the cooks responsible for feeding street families who have been struggling during the Covid-19 pandemic. A community initiative emerging from the lockdown period as a way to deliver hot meals to the ones who couldn’t afford it, while providing income to struggling food sellers and cyclo-rickshaw drivers, it stands as an example of how our relationship with food changed during this last year.
Meet Somica, a young urban father representing the shift towards sustainability and gender equality the country is undertaking. The passion sprouting from his job supporting farmers is expressed also at home, where he is focused on being a role model to his kids and teaching them the importance of safe food and the pleasures of growing your own vegetables. The fair distribution of household tasks and support for his wife’s own entrepreneurial spirit form the basis of a caring family committed to shape the next generation of conscious citizens.
Waste – Closing the loop of the food chain
Facing an epidemic of both increasing waste production and reduction of soil fertility (and further abuse of chemical fertilizers), our world is on a turning point where circular economy is becoming an urgent matter. We need to close the cycle of food, and let what is currently ending in the landfill to go back to the first step of pre-production. Follow the journey of food waste from the sustainable restaurant Pizza 4P’s Cambodia to the social enterprise រុយរាជ RUY REACH to be converted by black soldier flies into organic compost and feed for animals, until finally reaching its destination, Phum Russei Edible, a farm where local children learn the power and beauty of growing their own food. This series is a journey along the steps of the Cambodian food system, giving visibility to the lives of the informal workers whose hands create the food that ends up on our plate.