“Children Can’t Learn on an Empty Stomach”
On January 20, 1969, eleven school children sat down for breakfast in the St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Oakland, California, free of charge. The children ate eggs, grits, fruit, and milk donated by local grocery stores, planned by nutritionists, and prepared by community volunteers. This was the start of one of the most impactful grassroots social welfare programs in national history, organized and operated by the Black Panther Party, a Black power political organization operating at the height of the 20th century Black Liberation Movement.
The BPP’s Free Breakfast Program was a collaborative effort of community members coming together to address a need in their community— namely, children’s lack of consistent access to nutritious food. By the end of the first week, that group of eleven children had ballooned into over 130. And by New Years Day of 1970, the BPP had served breakfast to over 20,000 school children across the country. At its peak, the Free Breakfast Program was responsible for providing breakfast to thousands of children every day across 45 different cities, regardless of their race.
The program immediately showed positive results. “The school principal came down and told us how different the children were,” recalls Ruth Beckford, a volunteer with the Free Breakfast Program. “They weren’t falling asleep in class, they weren’t crying with stomach cramps.”
And the BPP didn’t end their social welfare programming at breakfast, expanding to providing dozens of other programs at no cost to the community. In response to anti-Black policies that left Black, low-income, and urban communities to fend for themselves, BPP ran grassroots programs like their free health clinics, ambulance services, senior support services, and even free pest control for urban housing often left in dilapidated conditions by local governments.
While the popularity of the program quickly skyrocketed, everyone wasn’t quite so happy about children getting free food. The radical liberation group had long been a thorn in the side of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which saw the Free Breakfast Program as a threat that built trust between Black and urban communities and local Black Panther Party chapters. The FBI director feared this community building would lead to a further expansion of BPP’s ideas. But despite open, and often violent hostility from federal and local officers, the program continued to grow as thousands of children showed up to eat breakfast before school each day.
This popularity put pressure on politicians to create their own program to feed children before school. In 1975, the federal government implemented a permanent School Breakfast Program. Today, the SBP feeds over 14.5 million children before school. The implementation of a federal school breakfast program was a direct result of the community organizing of the Black Panther Party and serves as proof that local actions can have massive ripples. The work we do with our neighbors today has the ability to impact generations to come.