At the moment, the waiver that currently gives 12 million American school children free lunches is set to expire at the end of the month — the result of Mitch McConnell’s obstinance and President Biden’s ineffectiveness (especially at dealing with Mitch McConnell’s obstinance). It didn’t need to be this way; McConnell previously championed such a program for kids in rural areas, and Biden at least attempted to extend the waiver that Senate Republicans are squashing.
But they also could have looked to the one political organization that has successfully run such a program previously: the Black Panthers.
In 1969, Black Panther leader Huey Newton had a dancer girlfriend named LaVerne Anderson. She and her dance teacher helped the Black Panthers start what would eventually come to be called their Free Breakfast Program. As former Panther Billy X Jennings recalled to the Bay Area PBS outlet KQED, “Huey’s girlfriend at the time was taking an Afro-Hatian dance class from Mrs. Ruth Beckford-Smith, the famed dancer. And then, she told Ruth Beckford-Smith about the Party. Ruth Beckford-Smith told Father Neil. And Father Neil let them use his church to start the breakfast program.”
The church was the St. Augustine Episocal Church in Oakland, which is where the Black Panther Party would change the state of child hunger in America. “We began with 11 youngsters the first day (a Monday) and by Friday we were serving 135 students,” the aforementioned Father Neil has written on a Black Party legacy and alumni website. “This was the first nationally organized breakfast program in the United States, either in the public or private sector.”
The program was based on the essentials, and it aimed to grow young minds while also nourishing their bodies: “Each Free Breakfast Program was required to select a space able to accommodate 50 people. Ten Black Panthers would provide the breakfast. Two cooks, four servers, one greeter, one person to sign-in guests and two people to facilitate the lines and seat guests at tables. It was a smooth operation, able to provide breakfast to hundreds of hungry children each morning. They relied on donations from grocery stores and other local businesses, as well as churches, individual donors and supplemented that with fundraisers. And the division of labor was refreshingly feminist for an organization as macho as the Panthers. As former Chair of the Black Panther Party Elaine Brown once said, ‘We tried to change some of the clear gender roles so women had guns and men cooked breakfast for children.’”
Prior to the Black Panthers’ initiative, kids who couldn’t afford to pay for school lunch were simply left to go hungry, and often faced embarrassment from their peers. “They used to serve cookies and graham crackers and milk in the morning to children in primary school who had the money to pay for it,” Newton explained in an interview at the time. “And if you didn’t have the money to pay for it, you had to put your head on the desk until the other kids finished eating. I always thought that was very bad.”
The Free Breakfast Program was wildly successful and soon replicated and imitated — first by other chapters of the Panthers across the country, and later by the federal government. In fact, as KQED notes, “Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture had to have taken note of what the Black Panthers were doing. The government School Breakfast Program became a ‘permanent entitlement program by Congress’ in 1975, six years after the Panthers launched their program.”
Yet, the person who put a stop to the Black Panthers handing out free food to school kids worked for the federal government as well. J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, hated the Black Panthers, viewing them as a dire threat to the American way of life. Joshua Bloom, author of Black Against Empire, quotes from a May 1969 memo from Hoover about the Panthers’ free breakfast program in particular and why it must be stopped:
“One of our primary aims in counterintelligence as it concerns the Black Panther Party is to keep this group isolated from the moderate Black and white community which may support it. This is most emphatically pointed out in their Breakfast for Children Program, where they are actively soliciting and receiving support from uninformed whites and moderate blacks. You state that the Bureau under the counterintelligence program should not attack programs that have community interest such as the Black Panther Party Breakfast for Children. You state that this is because many prominent humanitarian, both white and Black, are interested in the program, as well as churches which are actively supporting it. You have obviously missed the point.”
These days, it’s McConnell and Biden who are missing the point. They’re also the ones making it a partisan issue. Because as Republican Mayor John Giles of Mesa, Ariziona — the co-chair to the bipartisan Mayors Alliance to End Childhood Hunger — recently noted, “The cause of feeding children is too important to let it be the victim of bureaucratic ineptitude.”
And yet, two of the most powerful men on the planet somehow can’t do what the Black Panthers did 50 years ago with a loaner church and some donated food.