Taing Huang Hao was visiting his parents in Phnom Penh back in January 2020, on a short break between semesters at the university he was attending in St Paul, and like most of us he had no notion that a global disaster was looming and the world was about to change forever.

St Paul is the capital city of the state of Minnesota and one of the “Twin Cities” – along with the larger city of Minneapolis – with both cities sprawled along the banks of the Mississippi River, not unlike how the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers wind past Hao’s hometown – except that its all much, much colder for most of the year.

Hao’s life in the Twin Cities was busy with classes and school full-time at the University of St. Thomas – the largest private university in Minnesota and highly-ranked nationally – as a third year student majoring in Supply Chain and Operations Management.

When the pandemic struck, Hao found himself stuck in Cambodia and unable to travel back to Minnesota in mid-March of 2020 when he was due to return to begin his next semester, as the coronavirus shut-down travel globally and made crossing international borders difficult and often flat-out impossible for much of the rest of the year.

“After that happened, I decided that I wasn’t going to waste this time by acting like I was on an endless vacation, so I started doing internships and found a job, but I also decided to work on some different social projects that would positively impact the community,” he says.

Now, in response to the lockdown and the hardship that it is causing some of the poorer residents of Phnom Penh, Hao has founded Local4Local – a youth-run programme providing food assistance to the poor, underprivileged and less fortunate people living in Phnom Penh.

“The lockdown has made food distribution difficult because it has made travelling difficult. I haven’t been able to go outside lately,” said Hao, who runs the campaign himself doing everything from graphic design to donation outreach coordinating the logistics.

“The way Local4Local works actually creates a 3-way sustainable ecosystem: the meals are prepared and cooked by local food vendors, then delivered by cyclo-drivers and received by those in need on the streets of Phnom Penh. Thus, the vendors and cyclo-drivers earn some money to support themselves and those who are poor and hungry get fed,” he says.

During a recent week-long period during the lockdown, Local4Local gave away 200 meals over seven consecutive days that were all cooked by different local food vendors and distributed by cyclo-drivers to 5 different neighbourhoods in the city.

Hao said that the food drive will continue to operate in the weeks ahead with no definite end date.

Through April 25, Local4Local has raised nearly $16,000 in donations, primarily given by individual donors through Instagram.

He says that all of the proceeds will go to pay for the meals from the local food vendors and for the delivery services of the cyclo-drivers.

Hao has been working with the Cyclo Association to allocate the cyclodrivers and coordinate delivery duties, now totalling over 1,500 meals and 100 cases of water along with other necessities that have been donated like noodles and sanitation products or household essentials.

Local4Local’s services so far have been targeted towards helping three groups: Street people or the homeless are the first priority as they are the most vulnerable, but they are also providing aid to 260 families who are living in the Steung Meanchey Landfill area along with around 30 workers from the Medical Waste Management Unit.

Taing Huang Hao was visiting his parents in Phnom Penh back in January 2020, when he got stuck and was unable to travel back to Minnesota. Photo supplied

“With the fundraising going so well, Local4Local allocated $3,000 towards distributing emergency kits to 260 families in the Red Zone in the Steung Meanchey area, and that was done in coordination with the Cambodian Children’s Fund charity.

“Local4Local has also budgeted $750 to provide assistance to 30 people who are unsung heroes – in all sincerity, I call them heroic – because they are working on the front lines dealing with hazardous medical waste for the Waste Management Unit,” Hao says.

Hao wants to open Local4Local Food Donation Centres or Food Banks and he’s also looking to start a volunteer programme in collaboration with schools and other community organisations. He said he hopes to have an “L4L” Food Truck up and running soon that might incorporate a food-stamp or coupon system for those in need.

“I’m just a college kid with a lot of hope and my only ambition is to make a positive impact and inspire the community with acts of kindness,” he avers in response to the increasingly frequent words of praise directed his way.

St Paul food drive inspires Local4Local

With its motto of “For the Locals, By the Locals,” the Local4Local campaign was inspired by a mobile food drive truck that came to the University of St Thomas campus while Hao

was there.

“I’d get out of class and go straight to the food drive truck and get free bread, fruit and snacks – no questions asked. The truck came twice a week to my college,” Hao said.

Hao explains that the food was all still in good condition and edible – except that most of it had small cosmetic defects that made it less appealing to shoppers in big grocery stores who could always choose another of the same item sitting right next to it – one without any flaws in its appearance.

A surprisingly huge amount of perfectly good food would go unsold and eventually be thrown away if the food drive programme didn’t collect it and give it away for free all over the city.

“Since then, I’ve been eager to bring that idea back to Cambodia and implement it here. The Covid19 era has been a difficult time for people in Cambodia, so I felt like there was no better time than the present to launch this initiative and Local4Local began,” he says.

“I believe that the campaign is effective because it was created at the right time when people were really needing support, while others were really keen to give that support to their community. Local4Local became a bridge to connect the donors to those in need,” Hao says.

Day-to-day meals

Cyclo-drivers and other people who live on the street or who aren’t fully housed include some motodops, tuk-tuk drivers who sleep in their vehicles at night, scavengers and many security guards.

Most of them work hard for a living and in many cases nobody would ever guess that they were technically homeless, but it’s a common situation in Phnom Penh.

According to Hao, sustainability and maximum impact are the core goals of Local4Local and reflecting his educational background in supply chains and logistics, he says he tries to figure out solutions that will benefit a chain of people rather than just one person, especially during this era of economic uncertainty when everybody is facing hardship.

“That is why I have cooperated with small local food vendors to help support their businesses, while also providing a cooked meal for the street people in need. The street food vendors already make meals that are

easy to eat and easy to pack.

“Life is tough enough already and everybody deserves to eat a hot meal and have a full stomach at least once a day,” he says.

The homeless lack kitchens to prepare food in and thus aid given to them in the form of groceries misses the mark. Raw chicken, whole onions and cooking oil aren’t very appetizing if you don’t have access to a gas range or a frying pan. But meals that are already cooked and packed for takeaway suit their needs perfectly.

Not understanding the realities of homelessness, many donors will give them bags of rice or packets of instant noodles – items they won’t be able to eat on the street, though they can sometimes manage to trade them to others for prepared foods or send to their families in the provinces.

“This is why Local4Local seeks to focus on day-to-day meals for the street dwellers. It sustains the street food vendors and feeds the hungry who don’t have other options.

“It is important to note that Local4Local does also accept non-perishable items and basic essentials as donations despite all that and we will direct those to people who can make appropriate use of them because supplies are easier to find for some donors and so they donate rice, noodles, eggs, and sanitary items through us too and that’s great,” says Hao.

Why cyclo drivers

Back in December of 2020, Hao started an initiative called the “Merry Cyclo Christmas” to share the joy of the Christmas holiday season with cyclo-drivers.

Hao had met a cyclo-driver named Ta Sun and he drove him around the city showing him the different places where Sun ate and slept.

“I was inspired to help one cyclodriver, but in about a 2-week period I organized two cyclo tours around the city and raised over $5,000 for the Cyclo Association to help around 250 cyclo drivers with food, necessities and other support,” Hao says.

The power of kindness

Hao believes in the power of individual acts of kindness and paying them forward, because he feels that kindness is contagious. This has been a hard year for billions of people around the world and everyone deserves a smile on their face.

Hao’s charitable impulses come from his upbringing, which was characterized by abundance but at the same time he was always taught that the appropriate response to good fortune isn’t an attitude of selfish entitlement but humble gratitude.

“I am fortunate enough to have a roof over my head and the support of my family, so I am blessed to be able to give back to others in need and to spread joy. I am elated by the fact that despite being in lockdown we’re still managing to give away food to hundreds of people on an ongoing basis.

“Helping the street food vendors, the cyclo-drivers and the people on the street with nowhere else to go and knowing that they get warm meals every day puts a smile on my face,” Hao says.

Each boxed meal provided for free by Local4Local costs them around 6,000 riel ($1.50) and comes with a bottle of water.

For more details, please contact Hao through his email: [email protected]. Donations can be made via his ABA account: Taing Huang Hao: 002 851 840.