I was born in Cambodia and recently moved to the States for college a few years ago. Apart from the familiar popular culture we Cambodians see very often through social media, I was mostly shocked by the eating habits in the US because it was very different to the culture I was so used to. 

After many civil wars, including the Khmer Rouge not many decades ago, Cambodia was completely destroyed, both intellectually and culturally. Many who survived the mass destruction understand what hunger truly means. While some choose to forget their painful history, my mother holds onto hers. Both her joyous and bitter memories are mostly of food: the smell of the charcoal smoke from her mother's kitchen and the horrible flavor of chicken feet she was often given as a ration for 10 years in the Thai refugee camp.

Photo courtesy of Sana Oung Ty

Like many who suffered from the terrible Khmer Rouge regime, my mother conserves every last bit of everything. You probably have heard the phrase, “a penny saved, a penny earned.” My mother holds this belief closely to her in everything she does—in her way of keeping every little bit of vegetables (she even pickles the stems so they don’t go to waste), or the way she saves every bit of leftovers.

You may be surprised of how old some of our leftovers are—it wouldn't surprise me if we found the same pasta from last Christmas still sitting in the freezer. This becomes a habit in our family. We never boil more water than we need because it wastes water, electricity, and gas. We turn the lights off whenever possible and we definitely don't throw away leftovers. Each member of our family was taught to be conserve everything as much as possible. That mentality has allowed our household to become more aware of many food security issues and to learn to better appreciate what we have. 

And so I learned the art of saving, to the point where I can be very anal about it. I become very frustrated when my friends chop off cilantro stems when cooking. And until today, I did not understand why Americans waste so many parts of the animals, including fat and bones.

In addition to valuing the amount of food we consume, there are many perks of growing up in a multicultural family. I grew up eating a lot of foods from different places (mostly from Asia and Europe). I realize that few people have the opportunity to experience as many spices and flavors from all around the world as I did.

As a kid I was very picky (my mother can testify to that), but as I grew older I became more willing to try newer or even stranger things—like deep fried tarantulas and crickets—some of which I'm very glad I tried, but some I very much regret doing so. 

I also discovered my love for cooking, which is probably caused by my almost always great experience with food from so many different cultures and from my travel experience. To learn about food is to learn about one’s culture and food security issues around the world. I made friends along the way from different places around the world as I share my food and culture with them. I actually started dating my current boyfriend after we started cooking together.

Clara Kim

Sadly, having the understanding about food insecurity also means that I am able to see the problems with food consumption around me. During my first visit to the US in 2011, I went to a breakfast place in Nashville and was served a stack of four 10” pancakes and a big plate of ham that could serve my entire family. I didn't finish even a quarter of it and it pains me to see so much food is going to waste.

And here’s another painful fact: The US produces $165 billion of food waste each year, which is equivalent to 40% of its food production. That amount of food waste can feed the entire Cambodia for more than 10 years.

When you waste food, you're wasting the time, money, and energy you put in as well as the resources from the food production industry. It's also important to understand that a lot of people in many parts of the world will do anything to have access to food like we do. So, learn how to reduce food waste. Try to record how much food you waste per week by simply taking pictures of it. You will be surprised by how much food and money you've thrown away. Remember, simple habits and acts can make a big difference. 

To learn more about food security in Cambodia, you can visit this website. Please consider donating to the World Food Program to help combat world’s hunger here.