MANILA — Days after Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. claimed victory in the May 9 presidential race, nutribun trended on social media, with many users associating the bread to the dictatorship of his late father and namesake.
But how did nutribun become a household name and why is it associated with Ferdinand Marcos Sr's regime?
Where nutribun came from
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) introduced nutribun as a supplement in feeding programs to combat malnutrition among Philippine elementary school students.
In a paper, the USAID said it formulated the nutribun as a "ready-to-eat complete meal," while the Food For Peace program and humanitarian organization Cooperation for American Relief Everywhere (CARE) donated ingredients. Local commercial bakeries produced and delivered the finished product to schools.
The nutribun aimed to meet one-fourth to one-third the average daily nutrient requirements of elementary school children. It had about 500 calories and 17 grams of protein, which was one-third the amount a child needed daily. It also gave children significant amounts of vitamin B complex, vitamin A, calcium, and iron.
Children paid P0.05-P0.10 per nutribun, which covered the costs of local ingredients, baking, and delivery.
During the school year 1970-1971, approximately 200,000 elementary school pupils received the nutribun in a test program as a snack while attending school. The following school year, students who received nutribuns increased to around 1.3 million.
Alleged credit grabbing
During a flood disaster in Central Luzon in the summer of 1972, some 8 million nutribuns were airdropped to the most severely affected areas. Bakeries also shifted to disaster feeding from delivering the snack to schools.
The USAID noted that nutribun was an ideal emergency food item because it gets moldy in 2 to 3 days and could not be hoarded.
It was during this time that the buns came to be associated with the Marcoses.
A 2017 report by news website Philstar’s Newslab quoted a portion of the memoir of Nancy Dammann, a longtime media advisor for USAID. In it, she said, "the nutribun bags were being stamped with the slogan 'Courtesy of Imelda Marcos — Tulungan project.'"
A Vera Files report also cited an Aug. 4, 1972 column by American journalist Lee Lascaze, in which he wrote that “Plastic bags stamped with her (Imelda's) name were being widely used at one time for relief grain distributed in central Luzon’s most-damaged villages.”
The Tulungan project, the USAID noted, was an initiative of the former first lady that started in the 1970s—which means it coincided with the distribution of the Nutribun.
The project, a cooperation between the USAID and the Department of Social Welfare, was the first major effort to provide nutrition, basic health, and family planning services in Manila.
Bongbong's sister Sen. Imee Marcos has been pushing for the revival of the nutribun since 2019.
“Apparently, we’ve been left to our own devices for too long, so one solution is to revive the Nutribun soon. We’re coming up with a better version of what was given to schoolchildren in the 70s when dad was the President,” she said in a Facebook post where she called on the education department to address malnutrition to improve school performance.
The nutribun project was later revived in some parts of the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.
San Miguel Corp. in October 2021 said it had distributed more than 2 million pieces of the bread, which it started producing at the start of the pandemic for areas that struggled with food due to the lockdowns.
In July 2020, the Department of Science and Technology’s Food and Nutrition Research Institute (DOST-FNRI) released an enhanced nutribun, which has more iron and vitamin A. It was softer, had squash for better taste, and packed 504 calories and 17.8 grams protein.
The agency later came up with other nutribun variants with carrots and kamote or sweet potato.
Last December, Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso said the local government would install vending machines that will dispense nutribuns to students in the city’s public schools.