The Black Panther Party: A Food Justice Story

At a moment when Black Americans were suffering from widespread hunger, sickness, unemployment, and police violence, the Black Panther Party was there to try to fill the gaps that institutional racism and government negligence had created.
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For most of my life, I didn't know much about the Black Panther Party.

As a white kid born the same year that Martin Luther King, Jr. became the name of a national holiday, the stories I did hear about the Panthers weren't very inspiring. Sure, I knew things were bad for Black folks back in the 1960s, but it was clear that the "drug-addicted, violent misogynists" of the BPP did more to prevent racial progress than to promote it.

Then I got involved in the "good food movement" -- and the story I thought I knew began to change.

What does the Black Panther Party have to do with the food movement?

A lot, actually, even if it's a story that often goes untold, both in media narratives about the Panthers and throughout the food movement itself.

Setting the BPP's flaws aside -- the truth is that at a moment when Black Americans were suffering from widespread hunger, sickness, unemployment, and police violence, the Black Panther Party was there to try to fill the gaps that institutional racism and government negligence had created. The late 1960s saw the Panthers develop a host of community-based initiatives, with chapters across the country shifting their focus away from armed militancy and toward the development of "survival programs" -- survival pending revolution, of course.

Perhaps you learned a bit about this history while watching Stanley Nelson's recent documentary - The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution -- or maybe you took a look at the BPP's Wikipedia page after Beyoncé's Super Bowl™ performance caught your eye. But these sources only scratch the surface of the BPP's innovative community-based activism.

Dig deep and you will see that food was central to the entire survival program strategy, serving two basic functions.

First, Black hunger in 1960s America was a reality, and the government showed little interest in fixing the problem. With an under-resourced National School Lunch Program in place, this was particularly true among youth of color. In response, the Black Panther Party developed Free Breakfast for Children programs in cities across the nation, feeding at least twenty thousand schoolchildren in the 1968-1969 school year alone.

Food's second role, however, wasn't related to nutrition at all -- it served as an organizing tool and a conversation starter. Throughout Black Panther Party history, cooking and eating provided strategic entry points into discussions about racism, capitalism, and the possibility of revolutionary change.

With power like that, is it any wonder that COINTELPRO -- J. Edgar Hoover's covert FBI operation that surveilled and infiltrated "subversive" political groups during that era -- saw the Panthers' survival programs as even more dangerous than armed insurrection?

Ultimately, it's not surprising that this counter-story of the Panthers' legacy wasn't told in the textbooks I read or the TV I watched. What is surprising, though, is that mainstream food activists have been mostly silent on this history too.

Indeed, in the urban farms, farmers' markets, and documentary films of the food movement, I've heard unending talk about the need to get people in low-income communities of color to eat better food. They're the ones, of course, who live in food deserts and suffer disproportionately from food insecurity, obesity, and other diet-related disease.

Why, then, does the food movement barely even mention the nation's largest grassroots food access initiative, the one developed in those very same communities decades before by the BPP?

It wasn't until I began to collaborate directly with urban food justice activists - a people-of-color-led subset of the food movement -- that I heard any real discussion of the Panthers at all. Food justice activists employ many of the same strategies that have come to characterize the broader food movement -- they build gardens, offer nutrition education, and develop local food markets. But in the food justice approach, cooking and eating are never simply about improving nutrition alone. Food is also a strategic organizing tool and a critical conversation starter, all in support of a multi-ethnic movement for social and environmental justice.

If that narrative sounds familiar, it's because the legacy of the Black Panther Party looms large in the work of the food justice movement. Several former Black Panthers have remained committed to developing food-related programs, while many young food justice activists have taken the Panthers' revolutionary message to heart. At least one active food justice group -- Community Services Unlimited, Inc. in South Los Angeles -- was actually founded in the mid-1970s as the non-profit arm of a reformulated BPP chapter.

Operating in a vastly different historical and economic moment, today's food justice groups echo many of the Black Panther Party's fundamental critiques of racism and capitalism, although they do tend to emphasize the BPP's commitment to grassroots community action over and above its armed militancy.

They also face a number of similar strategic and economic challenges -- finding a sustainable economic model to fund a radical social movement is no easier now than it was then. And while the Panthers had to fight back against government repression in their time, today's food justice activists struggle to navigate the demands of the "nonprofit industrial complex."

Ultimately, as former Panther Chief of Staff David Hilliard described at a food justice event in 2011, "We've always been involved in food, because food is a very basic necessity, and it's the stuff that revolutions are made of."

For a better understanding of the Black Panther Party, and for a more just food system, it's a story we should tell more often.

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