Last week, I wrote a story about how Republicans in Congress are trying to reform the free breakfast program in schools. This is not new. Republicans have been trying for quite some time to cut this and other similar programs like free lunch, citing concerns about fraud and wasted expenses. Of course, just like their claims of supposed “illegal voting” that needs to be stopped, they have no real evidence that fraud of this type exists.
If you look at their motives, this actually has nothing to do with waste and everything to do with the stigmatization of poverty. At a time when low-income students comprise the majority in our nation’s public schools and children are the country’s poorest people, it is downright cruel to make it difficult for millions of needy students to eat. But there is little empathy for the poor among this group, even when they are children.
There is a lot that Republicans get wrong about poverty, often suggesting that there is something deficient about those who are poor while at the same time lauding those who are rich—as if their wealth somehow makes them good and decent people. Our country’s obsession with wealth and individuality has become a sickness that has blinded us to reality and the notion of working on behalf of a collective good. This was exemplified by the presidential election in November when more than 60 million people decided to vote a con man, serial abuser, and narcissist who had no government experience into the highest office in the land because he is a billionaire and promised to make them all rich. Even poor people—no, make that especially poor people bought the snake oil and thought he would bring back jobs and put an end to benefits for the undeserving who “mooch” off the government. Of course, they actually are the ones who are receiving government assistance but they are so brainwashed that they don’t even want to help themselves.
To be clear, this is not meant to demonize the poor. In fact, just like women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, and other minorities, the poor internalize a number of harmful societal messages around them that reinforce their inferiority and marginalization. And when it comes to white poverty these messages are mixed in with white supremacy, which reinforces a sense of superiority over people of color. This creates a toxic stew that causes poor whites to vote against their own interests and support policies that are far more damaging than they are helpful.
When it comes to the poor, one of the most pervasive stereotypes is that we, the taxpayers, shouldn’t provide them with any kind of assistance because they are prone to theft and can’t be trusted to make good decisions. But they can trusted to be a burden to the system.
Buy a steak with your SNAP benefits and you’re profligate; buy cheap junk food instead and your obesity is a burden on the healthcare system—never mind whether or not you have access to healthy, reasonably priced food that you have the time and means to prepare. And of course, if you dare to spend even one dollar of your benefit check on a “luxury item,” you’re a thief; if, instead, you manage to save that dollar, you must not have needed it in the first place. What’s the point in trying to prove yourself worthy of that welfare check when so many of your fellow citizens have prejudged you otherwise?
And if you are a person of color, Republican policies are especially not likely to help you, in part because they’ve spent the last half century making the face of poverty black.
In their study “Racial Winners and Losers in American Party Politics,” political scientists Zoltan Hajnal and Jeremy Horowitz examine the two parties’ claims that their policies benefit racial and ethnic minorities. According to Hajnal’s and Horowitz’s research, Republican policies predominately benefit the richest white Americans.
Given this, it comes as no surprise that the history of free breakfasts does not actually originate with the government, although free lunch programs have existed in schools since 1946. Instead, free breakfasts were born out of self-determination from people of color. As the face of poverty slowly became black, the nation and politicians in particular became less sympathetic to helping the poor and there was growing resistance to the welfare state. Black people got tired of waiting for the government’s war on poverty to reach them, and the Black Panther Party (BPP) mobilized to feed hungry children in the community.
While the USDA was starting its breakfast pilot program under the auspices of the Child Nutrition Act of 1966, the Black Panther Party was busy organizing its own Free Breakfast for Children Program. Initially operating out of St. Augustine's Church in Oakland, California, the Panthers' free breakfast program was a direct response to the war on poverty, the U.S. government's promise to provide basic needs (housing, food, safety) to its citizens. "They basically said that there was this war on poverty that was supposed to be feeding people, taking care of people, but it wasn't [in the black community] — so they were going to," says Joshua Bloom, a history professor at UCLA and co-author of Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party.
And the program was incredibly successful. It spread beyond Oakland to other cities across the country.
By the end of 1969, the Black Panthers were serving full free breakfasts (including milk, bacon, eggs, grits, and toast) to 20,000 school aged children in 19 cities around the country, and in 23 local affiliates every school day. [...]
Forbes says that most of the funding for the program came from donations from within the communities being served. “We got support from local stores, churches, and groceries,” Forbes says. The Panthers believed in the importance of education, and of kids showing up at school full and ready to learn, he says.
And the BPP weren’t the only ones feeding children. The Young Lords Party (YLP), inspired by the BPP, was a movement of mainly Puerto Ricans and other Latinos that sought to address change at the community level through “serving the people.” The Young Lords also had a free breakfast program for poor children (in addition to free day care and Latino educational programs), noting that:
Free Breakfast Programs will not change the racist brainwashing educational system in this country, but they do deal with the immediate physical needs of our people.
Of course, the programs weren’t exactly supported by the government. Expressions of self-determination on the part of people of color are always seen as threats to the status quo and white hegemony and are targets for destruction. To that end, former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover labeled the BPP a hate group and specifically called out the breakfast program as an act of subversion.
Hoover perpetuated that image when he declared all out war on the Black Panthers. In May of 1969 Hoover sent a memo to all FBI offices that read:
“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.”
After that, the program was short lived. While the BPP made sure to obtain the proper permits to keep operating and consulted with nutritionists to make sure the children received balanced, healthy meals, visits from police became more and more frequent, especially as the BPP began to organize in the same sites they served breakfast in. And Hoover wanted to make sure that the BPP was isolated from potential supporters. Even in the midst of the government’s war against them, some BPP chapters managed to continue their community programs until the mid-1970s.
"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," Hoover wrote on May 27, 1969. "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."
The Child Nutrition Act was passed in 1966 and in 1975, school breakfast became a program of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. Some historians say this was not because the BPP programs specifically influenced policy development but instead because women’s organizations began to lobby, formed a Committee on School Lunch Participation (CSLP), and spoke out about poor children being excluded from free lunch programs. Whatever the cause, it is impossible to ignore the contribution of the BPP in setting a model for breakfast programs to support vulnerable children.
Debates about helping the poor will likely continue—particularly in this polarized political climate. And it is doubtful that the Republicans in Congress will suddenly become empathetic to feeding poor kids, especially as they continue to paint the faces of those kids as black and brown. But regardless of color, the government and poor families across the country owe a debt of gratitude to the Black Panther Party, which set the model for how to nourish impoverished children and make sure they arrive at school healthy and ready to learn.