An independent project which seeks to provide free food to Cambodian children every day, many of whom live on the streets, is in danger of starving itself out.
BuckHunger, a private, non-profit organisation which has provided 32,000 free lunches to residents of the Russian Market since last December, suspended its daily meal programmes three weeks ago due to a lack of funds.
“It was a crushing blow,” said Johnny Phillips, founder of BuckHunger. “I am a little disappointed in myself. It never dawned on me that I wouldn’t be able to sustain this cause.”
In early May, Phillips and his staff turned away an estimated 250 children knocking on the door expecting a nutritious and filling hot meal. For many of them, this will be their only meal of the day.
“Those kids are out there right now,” said Phillips, an American restaurateur by trade. “For them, it is more than disappointment alone, it is hunger.”
According to him, some of the children have returned to the nearby rubbish dumps, not only in search of items which they can sell but also for scraps of leftover food.
“For a week after, I couldn’t face anyone,” said Phillips, who is still recovering from the setback. “I was so ashamed that I didn’t want to see anyone, not even my staff.”
With 38 years of commercial food and beverage experience running white tablecloth restaurants in Oklahoma, California and Arkansas, Johnny was certain that his current venture would take off.
He had even made plans for nine other soup kitchens to be established across Cambodia.
“I’ve always been working for a profit and suffered a lot of headaches in the process. Making money was the only fun thing about it,” said Phillips, who founded The Chalkboard Restaurant in Oklahoma, an award-winning establishment throughout the 70’s and 80’s. “I wanted to do something lasting, to make a difference.”
On several occasions early last year, Johnny was having dinner at a restaurant in Sihanoukville when he was approached by children begging to have the remains of his meal.
“A kid came up to me asking to have the pork chop bone on my plate,” added Phillips, recalling an incident which took place last February. “It was humbling to see kids begging or searching the thrash for food.
“There is so much need here in Cambodia. I felt that this was the right place to start something meaningful.”
In September last year, he packed his bags and moved from Arkansas to Phnom Penh to establish BuckHunger with a staff of 20.
On December 4th, BuckHunger opened its doors to four curious children from the neighbourhood. Within two weeks, there were at least 200 children coming in for a meal.
“When I first started BuckHunger, people told me that this is a miracle and Phnom Penh needs a miracle like this,” the 64-year-old said. “But they don’t realise that with each passing day, it gets harder to run this place without any money coming in.”
Unlike most NGOs, which are backed financially by established organisations and businesses, BuckHunger is managed by Johnny himself and is fully dependent on donations to keep its doors open to the hungry children of Phnom Penh.
To date, Johnny has financed most of BuckHunger’s activities, which include the cost of renting the premises, purchasing ingredients and paying for utility fees.
While he has managed to trim down expenses to the bare minimum, the restaurant costs approximately US$5,000 a month to operate.
After pumping in $40,000 of his savings and with little success in generating a steady flow of contributions, BuckHunger’s future is in peril.
Donations fell to an unacceptable level in April, leaving Johnny no choice but to halt meals.
“I ran out of trips to the ATM. It’s plain simple,” said Johnny, who is residing in Cambodia off his savings and social security. “It takes about $100 per day for the food alone but we require a steady stream of donations to continue our work.”
Currently, the director of BuckHunger is looking into several fundraising activities to jumpstart the project again.
Over the next few weeks, BuckHunger will be revealing a new website and a marketing video to raise awareness of the cause.
Johnny is also considering the alternative of an NGO taking over the restaurant and picking up from where he has left off.
“I have proved that there is a need here and someone can easily pull in and take over the business,” Johnny said. “They can change the name and do whatever they want, as long as the kids have something to eat everyday.”
“For me, the hardest decision has already been made and that is suspending the daily meals. I have no idea whether these plans will bring in the money, but I know for sure that it would be such a joy to see hungry kids walk out of here with a full stomach.”
By Calvin Yang
The Phnom Penh Post
29 May 2012
One of BuckHunger's young charges, enjoying a morning meal at the organisation's Russian Market premises in March. Photograph: Ruby Wright