Fifty years ago, in 1966, the U.S. federal government started playing with a radical idea: serving free breakfast in schools. School breakfast programming started small and inauspiciously with a two-year pilot program conceived and championed by Kentucky congressman Carl Perkins. According to the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, Perkins was initially concerned with the plight of children in rural areas, who got up early to work the fields with their parents and arrived to school hungry after long bus rides. After small steps and trial and error in the 1960s, the program expanded and was made permanent as we know it in 1975.
Free breakfast is now one of the U.S. government's largest welfare programs, offering free meals to children whose families are below the poverty line. In 2012, the program served breakfast to 12.9 million children before school and spent $3.3 billion on operating costs, according to the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service.
Unlike free lunch — which has existed formally since 1946 and has attracted great adulation and intense ire during its long tenure — school breakfast has usually flown under the radar of both nutritionists and public policy theorists. Even less known are the more revolutionary connotations of offering free breakfast to children. For some scholars, widespread free breakfast programming didn't begin with the federal government, but rather, with radical actions from the Black Panther Party.
"I really do believe that the government expanded their breakfast program because of the work we were doing."
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.
"I really do believe that the government [expanded] their program because of the work we were doing," says former Black Panther member Norma Amour Mtume. Mtume, now 66, joined the Party at age 18, following an incident in which her first husband, also a Party member, was badly beaten by police in a raid of the Panthers' offices in December 1969.
Mtume quickly became involved with the Breakfast Program at the Party's Los Angeles chapter, which served cooked food out of a rotating scheme of houses turned organizational offices. "I don't think [the government] wanted to be outdone by a community-based organization, especially the Panthers," Mtume says. "I really think we were very instrumental in school food programming."
Party co-founders Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton had worked in social service organizations in Oakland before starting the Black Panther Party in 1966. They knew a lot of the neighborhood kids and saw their political organization as a change agent for the black community. Free Breakfast for Children began as one of a number of the Panthers' survival programs and quickly became one of the organization's capstone programs.
Organizing in 1968, the party served its first St. Augustine's free breakfast in January 1969, under the leadership of congregation member Ruth Beckford-Smith, according to Bloom's research. Churches were ideal spaces for food programs because they were community hubs that often had kitchens and could accommodate meal service, Bloom says.
"Breakfast programs and other survival programs were really oriented toward building constituency and support, and addressing people's real needs in a way that built community," Bloom says. "[The Panthers] were about building allies and not just about challenging police brutality."
Supplies like grits, eggs, toast, and milk were donated by local businesses, as allies across the country pitched in to make breakfast go further (Bloom reports that some businesses who weren't Panther allies were strong-armed into cooperating anyway).
For Bloom, as well as for former Black Panthers who served breakfast in the late 1960s, the programming shed important light on gaps in the U.S. government's food programming — and did indeed foster community. JoNina Ervin, now 67, is a former member of the Panthers' Detroit chapter. She remembers standing in line for Huey Newton's wake after his murder in 1989, and meeting young adults who had eaten at the Breakfast Program as kids in the late '60s. "All these young people were saying, 'I'm here to pay my respects, because when I was a kid y'all fed me breakfast. If I hadn't had that breakfast I wouldn't have had nothing to eat,'" Ervin says.
Mary Bridges, an Oakland resident, grew up in St. Augustine's church, where her father was at one point the congregation's minister. She remembers St. Augustine's becoming a highly surveilled, contentious space when Black Panthers started meeting there in the late 1960s. Church elders, particularly, "took a long time to come around to the fact that the Panthers were going to meet there and that they had a viable program," she says.
Meanwhile, visits from the police became more and more frequent as Party members started organizing out of the space and providing free breakfast to children, Bridges says. Her account is consistent with documentation from that era. A memo from J. Edgar Hoover to a San Francisco surveillance officer in 1969, republished in Bloom's Black Against Empire, demonstrates that Hoover wanted to disrupt the Breakfast Program exactly because it was effective and popular with moderate community members.
"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." By November, the Panthers reported that the program had spread to 23 cities. Between 1969 and 1970, the party claimed to have distributed free breakfast to 20,000 kids.
Susan Levine, a University of Illinois at Chicago history professor and the author of School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America's Favorite Welfare Program, doesn't think that the Panthers' programs directly motivated changing legislation around school breakfast and lunch. But as the Free Breakfast for Children program grew, the U.S. government's attentions to breakfast happened to increase as well, going from spending just $600,000 on breakfast programs in 1967 to feeding 1.18 million kids breakfast in 1972, according to the USDA.
Instead, lobbying by mainstream women's organizations caused policy shifts in the late 1960s, Levine says. After the Child Nutrition Act passed in 1966, a confluence of women's organizations formed the Committee on School Lunch Participation (CSLP) and published a report called Their Daily Bread. The result was a scathing account of the ways in which poor children were left out of school lunch programming.
Not every school district offers free breakfast, and those who do often struggle to keep student participation going strong.
"The Panthers were part of the general context in the late 1960s," Levine says. "But I think CSLP was probably more specifically influential, because they actually went to Congress and testified, and their report got a lot of attention in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death."
Either way, school breakfast for kids went mainstream in the 1970s, serving more food to more students than ever before. These days, institutionalized breakfast's potential for raising student achievement — and its status as a big-business, unevenly funded program — make it highly political subject matter, even after all these years.
Today, not every school provides free breakfast, while lunch offerings are universal (compared to its $3.3 billion bill for breakfast, the National School Lunch program spent $11.6 billion in 2012). And some districts which do offer breakfast programs struggle to keep student participation going strong. For Levine, school lunch may also have higher participation because it carries more weight than breakfast in American cultural constructs. "The school lunchroom is an iconic setting," Levine says. "Culturally lunch has a lot more cache than the breakfast program."
Jennifer LeBarre, Oakland Unified School District's director of nutrition services, says that her program serves breakfast to just 6,500 students each day, out of a total enrollment of 49,052. "There's a big gap between who we could be serving and who we are serving," LeBarre says. To drive up participation, her team has started trying alternative breakfast models, where students can grab free breakfast on their way to class instead of showing up to eat before school starts. And serving breakfast after the bell — while making it available to all students, regardless of income — could reduce the stigma that students who show up early for breakfast sometimes feel, LeBarre says.
These days, Oakland's school breakfast looks a little bit different than the eggs and grits that started at St. Augustine's. LeBarre's program offers bagels, pancakes, scrambled eggs, fresh fruit, and an egg and English muffin sandwich. Her staff is working within guidelines mandated by the USDA (yes, the same controversial guidelines which have come under scrutiny from public health and nutrition experts).
Like many who work closely with school food policy, LeBarre is critical of some aspects of the USDA's program. Recent changes to USDA requirements focus on making whole grains available to students, but they eliminate the requirement to serve protein. "With so many students at high risk for diabetes, it doesn't make sense to have a whole breakfast program focused on grains," LeBarre says.
"If districts were willing to up the taxes to pay for more funds, they might be able to improve school food."
But at the end of the day, now, as in 1966, many of the breakfast program's limitations come down to funding. LeBarre's district won't see any additional funding from the federal government for improving the quality of the food it serves, so there's not much incentive to do so. Levine, for her part, says that school breakfast and lunch programs face the same problems. "Local food districts are so pressed for funds," Levine says. "If districts were willing to up the taxes to pay for more funds, they might be able to improve school food." And the problem is bigger than just buying better food: Most schools, especially urban schools, don't have kitchens, Levine notes. This makes it difficult for them to cook fresh food, so they purchase pre-made meals and re-warm them instead.
In Minneapolis Public Schools, student participation in free breakfast programs is significantly higher than in Oakland — the program serves breakfast to 11,500 of the district's 34,000 students. Michele Carroll, the district's culinary and nutrition services business manager, said her department prides itself on providing food to low-income students who might not otherwise have access. "If families have the opportunity to provide breakfast at home, great, but it's important to provide it for those who don't have it before they get to school," she says.
In California, in response to calls for healthier, more local food in classrooms, some of Oakland's school meal programming has come full circle — back to the Panthers. LeBarre's district is now working with West Oakland Farms, a new non-profit urban farm started by former Black Panther Party chair Elaine Brown. LeBarre runs an after-school produce market which sources its wares from Brown's farm.
West Oakland community members still have strong — and often fond — memories of the Black Panther Party's organizing efforts around basic needs. For those who remember, current school breakfast and lunch programs are a part of that legacy. "I think the work that [the Party] did was in a whole different playing field," LeBarre says. "But I certainly believe that the work we do in school food in Oakland plays a key role in improving the health outcomes of our children and getting them ready for academic success."
Lead photo: A Black Panther public food drive, circa the late-1960s. David Fenton/Getty Images