The Free Breakfast for Children Program and the Contestation of a Right to Food

The Tenth and final point of the Black Panther Party’s (BPP) Ten Point Program is as follows: “We Want Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice and Peace.”[1] A right to things that would allow a human being basic sustenance and survival, as well as the ability to thrive, were thus paramount.

"Charles Bursey hands a plate of food to a child seated at a Free Breakfast Program."
“Charles Bursey hands a plate of food to a child seated at a Free Breakfast Program.”

This aim for well-fed peoples resulted in action when the BPP organized a series of social programs aimed around serving low-income communities, the most popular of which was the Free Breakfast for Children Program (BCP), which was started in 1968 and served children as young as toddlers and as old as high schoolers throughout the U.S.[2] The recipients of food weren’t always black, but engaged with blackness in their interactions at BCP.

According to a Los Angeles Panther, “The organizing effort began with us going door-to-door in the projects, passing out free papers with leaflets advertising the program. We talked to parents, kids, and storeowners near the projects. We explained why we had started the program: to help kids grow and intellectually develop, because children can’t learn on an empty stomach.”[3] They also reached out to local businesses and churches and asked for donations to help feed the children each morning before school. In other words, their goal was to help the community by starting with the youth.

Activities at the free breakfast programs didn’t just include making and serving food. The 20,000 children involved in the program engaged in black fellowship, learned about black culture, discussed self-determination, and practiced the BPP values.[4] Blackness was thus mobilized in order to gain community support in order to feed these children, but also mobilized in order to use this platform to show these children both the way of the BPP and their own self-worth.

Clarion Ledger (April 23, 1969)
Clarion Ledger (April 23, 1969)

But it was these same non-food activities that got the BPP in trouble and sparked public controversy about whether or not the Black Panthers had the right to serve those in their community. In the late 60s and early 70s, a dichotomy of newspaper articles and editorial columns about the BCP appeared all over the U.S. Media outlets made political stances for or against the BPP, often indirectly, by framing the BPP in a negative light and by using loaded terms, such as “ghetto,” “militant,” and “murderous.”

Green Bay Press Gazette (April 17, 1969)
Green Bay Press Gazette (April 17, 1969)

In April of 1969, a single image of a Kansas City Black Panther member, Bill Whitfield, serving children breakfast at their local program, appeared in dozens of newspapers, from places as far away as Santa Cruz, California and London, England. Whereas one newspaper in Green Bay, Wisconsin described the photograph by stating that Whitfield was offering “a helping hand,”[5] another paper in Mississippi, featuring the same photograph, described the BPP as “militant” and mentioned their guns in the caption.[6]

Editorials were even more direct. In late 1969, writers Robert S. Allen and John A. Goldsmith wrote an editorial wherein they described the indoctrination of “ghetto children” into the BPP movement through a set of goals:

“(1) To indoctrinate ghetto youngsters in the Black Panthers’ revolutionary ideology and extremist anti-white hatred; (2) to operate as a cloak for illegal activities, such as shakedowns, rackets and vice.”[7]

The Evening Standard (June 14, 1969)
The Evening Standard (June 14, 1969)

According to a keyword search on Newspapers.com, this single newspaper article appeared in hundreds of newspapers (with circulations of thousands, or even millions) in 1969 alone. Because these two writers relied on distanciation (or an “us versus them” mentality), they had the ability to incite fear in the simple act of low-income and African American children receiving free food.

The anti-BCP rhetoric and sentiment came to an apex (and was no longer subtle) in 1969 with F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover’s declaration of war against the BPP, in which he stated:

“The BCP (Breakfast for Children Program) promotes at least tacit support for the Black Panther Party among naive individuals and, what is more distressing, it provides the BPP with a ready audience composed of highly impressionable youths. Consequently, the BCP represents the best and most influential activity going for the BPP and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.”[8]

A BPP member speaking to children at breakfast
A BPP member speaking to children at breakfast

The news coverage wasn’t always bad, however. Writer Sam Senowitz, of the Santa Cruz Times, spoke directly with BPP members in producing his article, and quoted them throughout. He even quoted Black Panther leader, Eldridge Cleaver, and stated, “Every man, woman, and child on the face of the planet earth has the right to the highest and the best and the most beautiful life that technology and human knowledge and wisdom is able to produce. Period. So we start from there.”[9] Other newspaper articles, like the aforementioned A.P. photograph, were less direct in their support and understanding of the BPP, but utilized linguistic shifts in order to put the BPP and the BCP, specifically, in different contexts and perspectives.

Because of the partial nature of the media and the collective memory associated with what we see and what we hear from the media, depending on where people lived in 1969 and what news outlets they engaged with, their views on the BPP would have been very different.

USDA School Breakfast Program (SBP)
USDA School Breakfast Program (SBP)

At present, there is a nationally-funded School Breakfast Program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service division, “[i]nspired in part by the ideas and actions of the Black Panthers in the 1960s.”[10] The government program, which found its roots and still continues to thrive in the residual memory of the Breakfast for Children Program, represents the processual memory associated with the BCP; our nation remembers the benefits of feeding young children, but ignores the Black Power ties associated with it.


Works Cited:

[1] Marxist History Archive . (2001). Ten Point Program. Retrieved April 18, 2017, from https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/workers/black-panthers/1966/10/15.htm
[2] Benowitz, S. (1969, September 21). No Child Need Go to School Hungry. Santa Cruz Sentinel, p. 8. Retrieved April 18, 2017, from newspapers.com.
[3] Forbes, F. A. (2007). Will you die with me?: my life and the Black Panther Party. New York: Washington Square.
[4] King Collier, A. (2015, November 04). The Black Panthers: Revolutionaries, Free Breakfast Pioneers. Retrieved April 18, 2017, from http://theplate.nationalgeographic.com/2015/11/04/the-black-panthers-revolutionaries-free-breakfast-pioneers/
[5] Green Bay Press Gazette. (1969, April 17). A Helping Hand. Green Bay Press Gazette. Retrieved April 18, 2017, from newspapers.com
[6] Clarion Ledger. (1969, April 23). Sausages, Not Guns. Clarion Ledger. Retrieved April 18, 2017, from newspapers.com
[7] Allen, R.S. and Goldsmith, J.A. (1969, June 14). Free Breakfast Plan Used. The Evening Standard. Retrieved April 18, 2017, from newspapers.com.
[8] PBS. (2002). Hoover and the F.B.I. Retrieved April 18, 2017, from http://www.pbs.org/hueypnewton/people/people_hoover.html
[9] Benowitz, S. (1969, September 21). No Child Need Go to School Hungry. Santa Cruz Sentinel, p. 8. Retrieved April 18, 2017, from newspapers.com.
[10] King Collier, A. (2015, November 04). The Black Panthers: Revolutionaries, Free Breakfast Pioneers. Retrieved April 18, 2017, from http://theplate.nationalgeographic.com/2015/11/04/the-black-panthers-revolutionaries-free-breakfast-pioneers/

Author: Morgan Vickers

American Studies

3 thoughts on “The Free Breakfast for Children Program and the Contestation of a Right to Food”

  1. I really like how you included the lasting impact that the BPP had on breakfast initiatives in the United States. In many ways, I feel the BPP confronted an issue that was not directly addressed by the U.S. government. For more information on the FBI files that you were interested in, go to this link and sign in with your onyen:http://hv.proquest.com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/historyvault/docview.jsp?folderId=101094-002-0544&q=&position=-1&numResults=0&numTotalResults=

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