Friday, October 22, 2021

The True Story Behind Ferdinand Marcos and the Nutribun (Frequently Asked Questions)

The nutribun is often cited by Marcos supporters as an accomplishment of the late Ferdinand Marcos. They often make it appear like Marcos came up with the project. They make it look like it was a product of Marcos's benevolence. What they don't often mention is the fact that the nutribun was an initiative of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and was distributed through their Food for Peace Program. The program ran from 1971 to 1997 in the Philippines. The program was specifically designed to combat the worsening malnutrition among children in the country in the 1970s.

Yes, malnutrition was really bad under President Marcos in the 1970s that the United States had to intervene and that's why they came up with the nutribun initiative. 

What was Marcos's role in the nutribun project?

He was the president at the time that the program was rolled out by USAID in the country. That's about it. For USAID to be able to efficiently distribute the nutribuns to children around the Philippines, they needed to partner with various Philippine government agencies. Obviously, they can't identify beneficiaries and distribute the goods on their own. They needed the cooperation of the concerned agencies in the country. The Marcos administration played a part in the distribution of the nutribuns. The question is this: Can you consider that as an accomplishment? Keep in mind that the nutribuns were donated to the Philippines to address rampant malnutrition in children which is a social and health problem that occurred while Marcos was in office.

Who developed the nutribun?

The bread was designed at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University between 1968 and 1970. The recipe was developed by a team of nutritionists and agrarian experts. The bread was specifically designed to address malnutrition among public elementary school students in the Philippines. USAID requested three features from the developers. One, the nutribun should be convenient and ready-to-eat. Two, it must be fortified with nutrients. And three, it should be easy to augment with local ingredients that can be found in the Philippines like malunggay, eggs, banana powder, and squash.

Was the nutribun successful in addressing the malnutrition problem in the Philippines?

Yes. The malnutrition rate in the country significantly decreased after the introduction of the nutribun. From 1971 to 1973, severe malnutrition among children was reduced from 5% to less than 1%. The malnutrition rate continued to go down so the program was gradually phased out. The final batches was distributed in 1997. However, there are those who doubt the nutribun's impact in curbing malnutrition. "There is little evidence . . . that present school feeding programs have significantly enhanced the physiological capacity of students," Barry M. Popkin and Marisol Lim-Ybanez wrote in the journal Social Science and Medicine in 1982. 

Did Imelda Marcos take credit of the nutribun?

In 1972, when disastrous floods hit Central Luzon, bags filled with nutribuns were stamped with slogans that say "Courtesy of Imelda Marcos - Tulungan Project". This is despite the fact that these were donations by the United States. This story of credit-grabbing was told by Nancy Dammann in her memoir My 17 Years with USAID. Damman worked for nearly two decades as a Communications Media Advisor for USAID.

Why was the nutribun program ended?

The program ended in 1997. The final batches of the nutribuns were distributed in that year. "It was phased out because the US assessed the Philippines to be in less need for food aid compared to other countries like those in Africa," said Didi Vega, chief of the Nutrition Policy and Planning Division of the National Nutrition Council (NNC).