How the Black Panthers Made Breakfast a Social Justice Issue
When we think about social movements, so often we think of grand speeches, long marches, the feeling of inspiration swelling inside a crowd of people wanting change. We think about the people on the front lines of the movement—Huey Newton, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X. But what about the people in the background? And what about the people outside the frame who worked to nourish and comfort the activists marching on Washington, or clamoring for peace? What about the people making dinners and wrapping up snacks? The community of people, many of them women, that literally fueled these social justice movements remain in the background, but without them, these movements would not have succeeded. Food has played a crucial role in various social justice movements over the decades, and as societal issues continue to evolve, we see the role of food being expanded in new and exciting ways.
The most famous incorporation of food as social justice might be the Free Breakfast Program in public schools across the United States, created by the Black Panthers in 1969. When the Free Breakfast Program was first created, it was successful because of the women and girls that committed to making it happen. In a book documenting what it was like being a member of the Black Panther Party at the height of their involvement, member Flores Forbes writes in her book, Will You Die With Me? My Life and The Black Panther Partythat the need of the Free Breakfast Program came directly from matching the need in the community. The program’s direct goals were to help children “grow and intellectually develop because children can’t learn on empty stomachs.”
The Free Breakfast Program initially started as part of the party’s community survival programs, aimed to directly fill the needs of community through self-preservation rather than relying on others outside of the community to provide solutions. The Free Breakfast Program became the most popular of the programs, both in how they linked directly to uplifting the youth of the community, but also the cooperation that it led with other community leaders and places of gathering such as the church. Local businesses contributed by donating the food that Party members would prepare and distribute every morning. The Free Breakfast Program was important in both instilling important values within the children of the community that the Black Panthers served, but also marked an important example of how inequality in regards to food access are a directly feminist cause.
The success of this program has been marked by historical scholars—National Geographic notes that “...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.” What makes the program itself so remarkable is the fact that at its inception, the Free Breakfast Program was completely community-supported (donations were made entirely from members of the Black community and Black Panther supporters).
Food has also played a role in how we create change. By addressing the needs of many communities directly, social justice organizations find themselves allowing for these communities to find their voices and use the tools at their disposal to find a solution that works with them rather than for them. This can happen in a variety of ways: community-led initiatives to create everything from “urban farms” to programs directly challenging the lack of fresh food options in food deserts. Often, food-focused actions within social justice movements cross over to other focuses, like racial equality, disability rights, and others. But there are few other connections closer than that of gender equality and food as social justice.
The most fascinating part of the incorporation of social justice through breakfast is that it evenly distributes power across the communities they serve. In the 2012 documentary, Soul Food Junkies, director Byron Hurt explores the connections between Black identity, history, and the role that soul food plays in connecting the Black community better into the growing vegan and conscious eating mindset with food. Important enough, but what stood out to me wasn’t the facts or the variety of the recipes, but rather, the interviews with soul food chefs themselves, who mostly turned out to be women.
It was here that I first learned about Willora “Peaches” Ephram. Born in 1924 to sharecropper parents, she learned to cook by watching family members in the kitchen. That passion soon helped her as a cook at Black Stone Restaurant, and by opening up her own restaurant in 1961. Ephram’s claim to fame arrived as she provided food for everyone during the Civil Rights Movement. How many women like Ephram existed throughout history—“ordinary” women whose roles in preparing and cooking food acted as the glue that kept many social justice movements together, only to never be celebrated or recognized for their work because of misogyny, racism, or simply history’s short attention span? How many of these women and marginalized people contributed to the work that we recognize today, but whose names we will never know?
Without its people—without the everyday citizens who provide labor out of love and a commitment to do better for themselves and those they care about—social justice would be little more than a dream. Breakfast, in the way that it can bring large groups of people together, becomes the fuel that we rely on to keep fighting for what we believe in. To connect food to the core of work done in social justice movements is more than just paying homage to those who have come before us—it becomes about putting these social justice principles to practice. To honor food’s role in propelling social justice movements forward, no matter what their cause, is to ultimately uplift and center the most marginalized of us and the labor that we have contributed to the progress and success of the movement as a whole.