Nutribuns upon a time
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Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…a monay?!
On July 16, 1972, Typhoon Gloring (international codename: Super Typhoon Rita) tore through the Philippine island of Luzon, leaving 214 Filipinos dead and thousands more displaced by disastrous floods. Many parts of Metro Manila and Northern and Central Luzon were submerged in up to twelve feet of water, prompting the evacuation of hundreds of families to flood relief centers.
Responding to pleas for food and other emergency supplies, the Philippine government, aided by the U.S. Armed Forces in Subic and Clark Air Field in Pampanga, airdropped thousands of bags of relief goods to affected areas. Imagine the surprise of the cold and hungry flood victims when they found–jostling for space with the rice, biscuits canned goods–a pack of Nutribuns.
Nutribuns, for those too young to know or too old to remember, were vitamin-fortified buns that were distributed to public schools as part of a national program to fight malnutrition among Filipino school children. Commercial and school-run bakeries were contracted to make the Nutribuns, using skimmed milk and flour donated by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Even bakeshop chain Goldilocks claims it produced Nutribuns at its Pasong Tamo, Makati, branch daily from the late 1960s to the early 1970s.
Each Nutribun packed 500 calories and provided approximately one-third of the recommended dietary allowance of energy and protein for school-age children. In addition to being a mainstay in public school feeding programs, Nutribuns became a staple in disaster food relief not only because they were easy and cheap to make but also because their three-day shelf life discouraged hoarding.
As with most things that are supposed to be good for you (whey protein shakes, cholesterol-free butter substitutes, and zero-alcohol beer), the Nutribun was doomed to be horrible-tasting. A former boss recalled using his hard-as-stone Nutribuns as ammunition against the school bully. My older cousins swore to having found all manner of insect body parts entombed in the bread. But time heals all jaded taste buds.
Most of the nostalgic Gen-Xers I’ve spoken to tend to wistfully remember the Nutribun as being very tasty and, on some “special” days (as when the school superintendent was visiting the school), filled with Star margarine or coconut jam. The buns were sold at a fixed cost of 10 centavos to cover the cost of materials and labor, as well as subsidize free Nutribuns for indigent recipients.
Because they were made from raw materials donated by the USAID, Nutribuns became a target of conspiracy theorists who believed that the buns were part of an insidious government program to curb population growth in developing countries. To prevent these Third World dwellers from procreating like rabbits, they claimed, the flour used in making the buns were adulterated with sterilization hormones. Other theories ranged from the moderately skeptical (the buns were meant to condition the rice-eating Filipinos into adding more bread in their diet, consequently easing the entry of American hamburger joints in the local market) to the downright loony (the buns were injected with homosexuality-inducing chemicals, thus putting the brakes on the country’s procreative profligacy).
The Nutribun program ran from 1967 to 1979 and served a total of two million buns (take that, McDonald’s!) during that period. My research does not provide any answers as to why the reasonably successful school feeding program was terminated. Had the tin-foil hatters been right all along about the “chemically-treated nutribuns”? Perhaps. Did the schoolkids inevitably decide that they have had it with monay for recess? Probably. But I’m guessing that then-First Lady Imelda Marcos, who misappropriated the program as one of her own, had simply moved on to her next pet project and dropped the Nutribun like a hot pandesal.
Case Report: Philippine Islands-Floods Jul/August 1972. US Agency for International Development (Washington, D.C.)
Nutrition and Related Services Provided to the Philippines, by the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Under Contract AID/ASIA, USAID.