Illustration of waffles on a plate

Free school breakfast has been in the news recently, with the Governor of Minnesota, Tim Walz, signing a bill to provide meals to all students, and the governor of Pennsylvania, Josh Shapiro, announcing, “we’re going to provide universal free breakfast in our schools.”

In a chapter of my new book, I tell the story of the breakfast program’s beginnings.

Participation in the federally funded School Breakfast Program has slowly but steadily grown over the years: 1970: 0.5 million children; 1980: 3.6 million children; 1990: 4 million children; 2000: 7.5 million children; 2010: 11.67 million children; and 2016: 14.57 million children.

Most people would thank their local congressman or those politicians who came before for the program. The truth is, those thankful for this program owe a major debt of gratitude not to the federal government or one specific politician. They owe thanks to the Black Panther Party, a Black power and self-defense group founded in 1966.

How the Program Started

A School Breakfast Program started in 1966 with a small and unpopular two-year pilot program conceived and championed by a congressman from Kentucky, Carl Perkins. He was concerned about the plight of children in rural areas who got up early to work in the fields with their parents and arrived to school hungry after long bus rides.

As the U.S. Department of Agriculture started the program, the Black Panther Party founded its own Free Breakfast for School Children Program for poor Black children.

Because this program was limited to rural schools, the Panthers created their program for the young people in their community. They started the program with St. Augustine’s Church, an Episcopal church in Oakland, California. Local businesses donated supplies like grits, eggs, toast, and milk, and supporters across the country pitched in to make breakfast go further. By the end of 1969, the program had spread to Panther chapters in 23 cities, feeding more than 20,000 poor Black children. In a 1969 hearing in the U.S. Senate the person running the national School Breakfast Program acknowledged that the Panthers fed more poor schoolchildren than the State of California did.

The Black Panthers’ reasoning was simple: hunger and poverty made it difficult for many poor Black children to learn in school. The Panthers said that the government was supposed to be fighting poverty by feeding and taking care of people, but that wasn’t happening in the Black community, so they were going to. The breakfast program was part of the Panthers’ community survival programs, which were designed to meet the unique needs of the Black community until the revolution that the Panthers were working toward. Some of these programs included a free escort program for senior citizens, a monthly bus to visit loved ones in prisons, and the establishment of 13 medical clinics across the country.

Opposition to the Program

While the Panthers breakfast program got the attention of Black families in need, it also got the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He stated that because of its free breakfast program, the Panthers were “the greatest threat to the internal security of the [United States].”

Hoover sabotaged the breakfast program, apparently out of concern that it would fuel the popularity of the Panthers. According to FBI records, one FBI head informed agents in San Francisco: “The BPP is not engaged in the Breakfast for Children Program for humanitarian reasons [but for others], including their efforts to create an image of civility, assume community control of Negroes, and to fill adolescent children with their insidious poison.” FBI counterintelligence, or COINTELPRO, efforts to interfere with the program’s operations included harassment of church leaders who hosted daily meals, questioning and occasionally arresting youth and Party members who attended or volunteered for meals, citations from the public health department for minor issues, and sometimes physical destruction of the food itself.

According to Panther Chief of Staff David Hilliard, who oversaw the expansion of Panther service work, “Police raided the Breakfast for Children Program, ransacked food storage facilities, destroyed kitchen equipment, and attempted to disrupt relations between the Black Panthers and local business owners and community advocates, whose contributions made the programs possible.” Hoover unreasonably defended FBI attempts to destroy the program.

Those police raids, as well as internal fights, partly because of interference by CONTELPRO, led to the end of the Free Breakfast for School Children Program in the early 1970s. However, the Panthers’ program helped spotlight the issue of poor children needing nutritious meals; Congress expanded the breakfast program to all public schools in 1975.

Where Credit Is Due

Some people don’t give the Black Panthers credit for the government breakfast program. The truth is that the Panthers do deserve much credit for their work feeding children and serving as an inspiration for the expansion of the breakfast program in 1975.

Expansion of the government program was one way to prevent groups like the Black Panthers from building programs addressing the racism experienced by Black people nationwide. But the work of the Panthers is another example of how thinking of liberation on behalf of Black people, by Black people, not only helps Black people but also helps all people.

Rann Miller’s new book, Resistance Stories from Black History for Kids, was published this month. Miller is director of anti-bias and DEI initiatives and a social studies teacher for a charter school district in Camden, New Jersey.

Last updated March 29, 2023