Justice  /  Retrieval

The Black Panthers Fed More Hungry Kids Than the State of California

It wasn’t all young men and guns: the Black Panther Party’s programs fed more hungry kids than the state of California.

The Black Panther’s Free Breakfast for Children Program is probably their best-known initiative, the press finding an intriguing story juxtaposing the Panther’s tough-guy-in-leather-jacket image with the act of serving small children plates of hot food. Importantly, it was mostly women who led these survival programmes, and women made up a majority of the Panther membership. They served in leadership roles from ‘Officer of the Day’ (essentially the office – and people – manager for each branch), to organising the many details of a location’s breakfast programme to initiating and leading food justice, healthcare and housing programmes within neighbourhoods. So why does the image of the Panthers as a masculinist and violent organisation persist? The answer lies in part with media distortion, influenced both by the sexism and racism that misrepresented the Panthers. There was also a misinformation campaign by the FBI, led by J Edgar Hoover, waged against the increasingly popular Panthers, which had an enduring impact on how people saw them.

The Black Panther Party had first made news headlines in 1966 and early 1967, with their neighbourhood patrols to counteract unjust arrests and rampant police brutality in Oakland. In these early days, when the most visible Panthers were armed men, news media was eager to share these provocative images alongside reporting that reinforced stereotypes of Black men as aggressive and dangerous. But from the beginning, Newton and Seale had articulated the party’s diverse goals in their Ten-Point Program, including an emphasis on education, employment and ‘land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace’. After a couple years of growth in party membership, the Panthers had begun to build programmes to address social problems. Then, over the next several years, it was women who took the reins of the programmes that became the focus of the Black Panther Party as it grew and evolved.

So much of the Panthers’ focus was on food justice programmes, in part because this was a way to immediately make a difference – people had to eat every day. But they also quickly found that food was integral to creating community, stoking agency and sharing culture. After Panthers held a food drive or helped take packages to elders up many flights of stairs, down would come a pot of rice and beans to share at the Panther office as a thank-you. The Panther Cleo Silvers would bring young teens in the neighbourhood to eat at inexpensive Indian, Chinese and Italian restaurants around New York City, wanting these young people to feel welcome in these spaces and experience diverse cuisines. ‘Sharing a meal was the best way to understand what people were thinking,’ Silvers said. ‘It’s the best way to really understand what’s important to them.’