It is not only the family of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. who are making a comeback in the Philippines. An enriched bread known as nutribun, and the controversy surrounding it, has also reappeared.
This month, a version of the snack – previously given to school children to tackle hunger under Marcos Sr.’s regime – was handed out at the Consolacion, Cebu, in the central Visayas region. Packages bore the name of Senator Imee Marcos, daughter of the late dictator, according to news reports.
At a separate event in Davao City, on the southern island of Mindanao, the senator sparked controversy by suggesting that the nutribune successfully prevented all child starvation under her father’s rule – a claim that is untrue. It was so filling that you could barely finish a serving, said Imee Marcos, adding “it’s like cement in your stomach.”
“No child was starving at the time because there was an abundance of nutribun,” she said of her father’s regime.
Marcos supporters say the nutribun is a symbol of the family’s commitment to protecting the poor and vulnerable.
For others, the nutribun is a reminder of the economic misery and mismanagement that took place under Marcos Sr.’s rule – and its distortion helped propel Ferdinand Marcos’ son and namesake to an election victory last month. He has been accused of minimizing abuses that took place under his father’s regime and has claimed he was too young to bear responsibility for them at the time. Thousands were tortured, imprisoned or killed under the rule of Marcos Sr., while as much as $ 10 billion was looted from the treasury.
Myths celebrating the nutribune are being implemented by influential social media allied with the Marcos “to eradicate facts about the Marcos regime – that in the last years of the Marcos regime there was economic unrest, there was massive looting of public coffers, “says Francisco Jayme Guiang, Professor of History at the University of the Philippines. Instead, his regime is portrayed as a time of progress, with plenty of food. ‘There was free food, there was nutribune, and therefore the economy [must have been] stable, ”adds Guiang.
Marcos Sr.’s regime was far from a golden era for the Philippine economy. From 1984-85, the Philippines experienced its worst post-war recession, driven by “desired borrowing and consumption, [that] was not at all sustainable “and comradely capitalism, says Jan Carlo B Punongbayan, assistant professor at the University of the Philippines School of Economics.
“In the violence of the economic recession, as many as 60% of Filipino families were considered poor,” he says. Inflation peaked at 50% in 1984.
“There is a wealth of evidence of hunger, severe hunger, inhibition at that time,” Punongbayan said. According to Unicef, 140,000 children experienced second- and third-degree malnutrition from 1984-86 in Negros Occidental.
Fact checkers in the Philippines also point out that, contrary to claims shared widely online, nutribun was not a Marcos initiative. It was actually developed by the U.S. State Aid Agency to tackle hunger and malnutrition in the Philippines. “USAID Nutrition was responsible for the development of the formula to justify a claim for nutritious snack foods,” said a document released by the agency, adding that the US Food for Peace program and the humanitarian agency CARE were responsible for donated foods. USAID collaborated with the Marcos administration in areas such as distribution.
The dynasty’s matriarch, Imelda Marcos, has been accused of trying to take full credit for the product by placing her name on the packaging. “The wives of several U.S. officials helped pack rice and nutribunes (a horrible bun made of high-vitamin and high-milk flour invented by an AID official and donated by USAID) for distribution to flood victims,” writes former USAID media consultant Nancy Dammann in her memoir, quoted by Philippine Star as describing the relief effort following the devastating floods of 1972.
Dammann writes: “The Nutribun bags were stamped with the slogan ‘Courtesy of Imelda Marcos-Tulungan project'”. Tulungan was a health and nutrition project led by the former first lady.
For many older voters who remember the 1972 flood, “the nutribun is almost synonymous with Marcoses,” Guiang said. “It was a matter of credit.”
In recent years, some local governments have revived nutribun programs, including in the Ilocos Norte, the Marcos family stronghold, and in Manila.
The Marcos family has also continued to adapt to the brand; nutribun-style handouts at Consolacion mark just one of the snack’s several recent iterations. Senator Imee Marcos’ office also distributed a similar product in December to communities affected by Typhoon Odette, and in July last year in Bulacan as part of a nutrition month.