Today, food insecurity disproportionately affects black and brown individuals, as it has throughout the history of the United States. 1 in 3 black and brown households with children are food insecure, compared to 1 in 6 white households with children.
Hundreds of years of racist policies - many of which are still active today- make food insecurity disproportionately more prevalent among Black individuals and communities compared to their white counterparts. Throughout US history, policies have been systematically crafted to disempower black people and communities, taking their wealth and stripping away opportunities.
In recognition of Black History Month, Project Bread reflects on this injustice and celebrates the many contributions of Black leaders and Black communities both past and present, in advancing the fight to end hunger.
Today, we highlight a food access point integral to Project Bread’s work—school meals—and how the Black Panther Party’s free Breakfast for School Children initiative in 1969 influenced the National School Breakfast Program, for which Project Bread is the statewide partner to Massachusetts’ Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, as we have been for nearly 20 years..
“The Panthers’ Free Breakfast Program focused national attention on the urgent need to give poor children nutritious meals so they could be successful in school.” - blackpast.org
What first began feeding hundreds of kids in Oakland, California, the Free Breakfast for School Children initiative grew to feed as many as 20,000 children per day, at 45 programs in 19 cities across the country. The program underscored the importance of breakfast for children in promoting academic opportunity.
It’s rapid expansion caught the attention of the public.
The program quickly became a target of then FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover. He feared the Panthers’ Service to the People programs --and the breakfast program specifically-- contradicted his portrayal of the Black Panther Party as a dangerous national hate group. He viewed the breakfast program as “an act of subversion” and “the greatest threat to internal security” in the US.
Stanley Nelson, the emmy-award winning Civil Rights documentary filmmaker behind The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015) shared a different perspective in a 2015 NPR interview while promoting the film.
...The free breakfast program was one of those ideas that just kind of arose out of a need….The Panthers saw that young kids were not being fed breakfast before school; there was no national government program to give kids a healthy meal before school. So the Panthers just started doing it, and it ended up being a very, very successful program…
The Black Panthers’ Breakfast Program ran in 19 different cities and served food free of charge, a model similar to the many mutual aid networks operating today. Both programs are built on the idea that our well-being, health, and dignity are dependent on cooperation and solidarity.
It is likely that the implementation of the Free Breakfast for School Children by the Black Panther Party catapulted the establishment of the USDA’s National School Breakfast Program six years later.
While the Black Panther Party paved the way for free breakfasts in schools, many other Black leaders also took pivotal roles in fighting against hunger. Representatives Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Lee worked to establish the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and Representative John Lewis fought diligently against hunger and poverty. These leaders demonstrated that taking action can result in widespread success.
The legacies of these pioneers in anti-hunger work carry on today. In Massachusetts, Black elected officials and their allies at the national, state, and local level are pushing for equitable access to food during the pandemic. The Massachusetts Black and Latino Caucus advocates for policy that makes school food more accessible in addition to many other legislative priorities promoting racial equity. In Washington DC, Massachusetts’ federal delegation continues to lead the fight to end hunger in the US.
In addition to the dedicated members of Project Bread’s team and Board of Directors who identify as Black, we celebrate the many Black leaders and Black-led organizations who are valued partners in advancing our mission. Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition, and the Greater Boston YMCA are particularly pivotal to our impact.
We recognize the strength, advocacy, public service, and resilience of Black America past and present, this Black History Month. We honor it by dedicating ourselves to operating every day, as an anti-racist organization working for a more equitable society, where hunger has been permanently solved.
1. Support Black-owned businesses.
Here are a few resources:
2. Support anti-racist policy.
In addition to supporting businesses and organizations, anti-racist policy is critical to realize change. It is crucial that we urge our representatives to amplify anti-hunger initiatives such as the Feed Kids campaign for universal school meals.
3. Continue learning.
Here are some additional resources to help you further explore this topic: