Free Breakfast for Children
The Free Breakfast for School Children Program was a community service program run by the Black Panther Party as an early manifestation of the social mission envisioned by founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale along with their founding of the Oakland Community School, which provided high-level education to 150 children from impoverished urban neighborhoods. Inspired by contemporary research about the essential role of breakfast for optimal schooling and the belief that alleviating hunger and poverty was necessary for Black liberation, the Panthers cooked and served food to the poor inner city youth of the area.
|Free Breakfast for School Children Program|
|Owner||Black Panther Party|
|Key people||Huey P. Newton, Fred Hampton|
Initiated in January 1969 at St. Augustine's Episcopal Church in West Oakland, California, the program became so popular that by the end of the year, the Panthers set up kitchens in cities across the US, feeding over 10,000 children every day before they went to school.
The Free Breakfast Program quickly became the central organizing activity of the group. The reach and success of the program in so many communities underscored the inadequacies of the federal government's then-flagging and under-resourced lunch programs in public schools across the country. The party used the program to educate children and their families about anti-capitalism, Black pride, and developing revolutionary consciousness. Many of these programs were held in predominantly Black neighborhoods but also served children of other ethnicities.
The program was mainly run by volunteers—both party members and non-affiliated community members, most of them women. They would start setting up and preparing food around 6 am, and served the meal from 7-8:30. Most programs took place in churches, schools, or community centers. A typical breakfast often included some combination of bacon, eggs, grits, hotcakes, toast, sausage, and a glass of juice or milk.
The Free Breakfast for Children Program was one among more than 60 community social programs created by the Black Panther Party. They were renamed Survival Programs in 1971. These were operated by Party members under the slogan "survival pending revolution." In addition to feeding school children, the Party started People's Free Food Programs, delivering groceries and encouraging community members to vote. Another Survival Program started by the Black Panther Party was referred to as "medical self-defense" with the creation of healthcare clinics and their own ambulance services. Other survival programs included children development center, free clothing, free busing to prisons, free housing cooperative, free ambulance, etc.
Fred Hampton, leader of the Chicago local, helped organize a number of community programs. These included five different breakfast programs on the West Side, a free medical center, a door to door program of health services (which offered testing for sickle cell anemia), and blood drives for the Cook County Hospital. The Chicago party also reached out to local gangs to clean up their acts, get them away from crime and bring them into the class war. The Party's efforts met with wide success, and Hampton's audiences and organized contingent grew by the day.
Despite its successes, federal authorities attempted to discredit and derail the Free Breakfast Program. Among other actions, authorities targeted the party with rumors of poisoned food and raided breakfast program locations while children were eating.
As depicted in the 2015 documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, it was Huey P. Newton, upon release from jail in 1970, who revitalized the breakfast program as a key social focus for the Panthers in Oakland; from exile in Algeria, Eldridge Cleaver protested that prioritizing the breakfast program diluted the true mission of the Black Panther Party, which Cleaver emphasized had to remain an "any means necessary" political opposition to U.S. government practices, thus concretizing a schism in the leadership of the Black Panther Party – into Cleaver vs. Newton factions – that led to its eventual demise.
Ironically, the US government would soon implement a national breakfast program of its own built on the framework of the Panthers' innovation.
The success of the Black Panther Party's Free Breakfast for Children program pressured state and federal governments to expand their own services. In California, the party pushed Ronald Reagan's administration to create a state-wide free breakfast program, and while the federally funded School Breakfast Program was first piloted in 1966, congress only permanently authorized it in 1975.
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