Hunger and Malnutrition

Hunger and Malnutrition

Malnutrition and undernutrition among children have been prevalent problems in the Philippines. (Photo courtesy of Taiwan News)

Our foremost priority is the removal of poverty, hunger and malnutrition, disease, and illiteracy. All social welfare programs must be implemented efficiently. Agencies involved in the delivery of services should have a strong sense of duty and work in a transparent, corruption-free, time-bound, and accountable manner.

— Former Indian president Pratibha Patil

CALOOCAN CITY, Metro Manila — Most of us senior citizens today should recall the time when our government under President Ferdinand Edralin Marcos Sr. (FM) initiated its feeding program to combat widespread child malnutrition in the country—and the program’s star was nutribun, the so-called bread product used in elementary school feeding programs that were initially part of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)’s Food for Peace program from 1971 to 1997.

Now, presidential sister and lady senator Maria Imelda Josefa ‘Imee’ Marcos wants a revival of the nutribun feeding program as a viable solution to under-nutrition among Filipino children, saying that the bread’s popularity in the 1970s “still inspires the local feeding programs of incumbent and aspiring politicians.”

Madam Imee claims that the success of the nutribun project “has hardly been matched by subsequent administrations” and with a looming global food crisis, she warns that current nutrition programs are “undernourished” and may not be able to withstand adverse developments worldwide.

The senator stressed: “We must restore the nutribun feeding program’s place as a viable solution to undernutrition among children. It can’t remain intermittent and sporadic advocacy.”

And the National Nutrition Councill, which her father established in 1974, as well as local government units (LGUs), municipal offices of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) and village health workers agree with Imee’s call to bring back the program.

On Sunday, September 11, simultaneous pilot-testing of the nutribun feeding program took place in Rizal, Cebu, and Ilocos Norte, where 1,000 children, ages 3 to 5 in each province, received packs of the iconic bread made with squash, malunggay (moringa) and other locally available high-nutrient crops.

The based bread known as nutribun (also referred to as Nutri-bun or Nutriban) was actually designed and developed by a team of nutritionists and agrarian experts at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University between 1968 and 1970. It was made of a wheat blend flour and non-fat dried milk donated by the United States under the PL 480 Title II Food Aid.

A convenient ‘ready-to-eat complete meal’ for public elementary school feeding programs to combat child malnutrition, the bread is well fortified with nutrients and easily augmented with the use of local ingredients, such as moringa (malunggay) leaf powder, squash, banana, and eggs.

The ‘base’ of nutribun is made from a blend of white and whole wheat flour mixed with yeast and a non-fat dried milk powder, although banana flour and coconut may also be used. It can also be fortified with soy flour as a protein source and made with iodized salt as a means of supplying iodine and sodium to the diet. Each bun weighs 80 grams and contains 400 calories.

During the late 1960s, while FM’s first term as president of the Philippines neared its end, the rate of malnutrition soared, especially among young children. Faced with a balance of payments triggered by infrastructure spending, the president drew upon the Official Development Assistance (ODA) in the form of the United States Food for Peace Program to start a five-year nutrition program, eventually named Operation Timbang in 1971.

Starting in 1972, USAID began providing the Philippines with thousands of loaves of nutribun in addition to hundreds of tons of dried milk powder, and the government took advantage of nutribun’s flexible recipe and added domestically produced banana and plantain powder to the list of ingredients.

Three years later, Marcos Sr. directed the government to take over the production of the bread, though shipments of ingredients still arrived from USAID. It grew in popularity in the country due to its similarity to pan de sal, which remained the most consumed bread among Filipinos.

After the introduction of nutribun and the implementation of a nationwide food distribution program, the rate of malnutrition in the Philippines fell drastically. From 1971 to 1973, severe malnutrition in children was reduced from five percent to less than one percent. The nutribuns were often distributed before school and were served with milk.

Following the decrease in the rate of malnutrition in the Philippines, the program was gradually phased out, with the final batches of nutribun being distributed in 1997.

Come 2014, when the rising cost of food triggered the increase in malnutrition cases in the country, the nutribun program was reinstated, but with the buns going back into limited production. Then in August 2019, Marikina City mayor Marcelino Teodoro revived nutribun when city officials noticed that some public school students were undernourished, and “offering the bread could provide them with proper nutrition.”

The Covid-19 pandemic also spurred some Filipino communities to put nutribun back into production, and during the height of the health crisis, one Philippine company began producing 10,000 buns per day and later increased production to 24,000 buns per day.

In July 2020, the Philippines government announced enhancements to Nutribun quality and nutritional value, including better texture and taste by using squash as a primary ingredient and the addition of iron and vitamin A.

It is worth taking note that the only other country that has maintained its own nutribun program is Jamaica and until now, the program is ongoing and successfully combating malnutrition in that part of the world.

Finally, we should seriously take into consideration the World Bank (WB) 2021 report that states “there have been almost no improvements in the prevalence of undernutrition in the Philippines” in the past 30 years.

It added that “the country is ranked fifth in East Asia and Pacific Region with the highest prevalence of stunting and is among the 10 countries in the world with the highest number of stunted children.”

In this, the new Marcos administration under President Ferdinand Bongbong’ Marcos Jr. should realize that “there is no more time to lose if the next generations of Filipino children are to be healthy in body and mind and ultimately productive as grown-up citizens.”

For your comments or suggestions, complaints or requests, just send a message through my email or text me at cellphone numbers 09054292382 for Globe subscribers and 09391252568 for Smart. Thank you and Mabuhay!

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