Updated: Jul 7
February is Black History Month, and we can’t celebrate Black History Month without acknowledging the role Black activists have played in advancing the food justice movement. There is a lot of Black history in the history of food, farming, and food justice. We cannot examine the reality of food injustice without first acknowledging the history of slavery that continues to affect race dynamics today.
History of Land Ownership
According to Malik Yakini, founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, “If it’s true that land is the basis of power, then land ownership in America tells a profound story about the intersection of race and power.”
Studies show that white people own 98% of privately owned farmland, while Asians, African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans own the remaining 2%. It’s not hard to figure out why that’s the case, especially since Black people were prohibited from owning land even after the Emancipation Proclamation. Former slaves were famously promised 40 acres and a mule, but their hopes of owning land quickly vanished and they were forced to live under the system of sharecropping. Jim Crow laws and segregation further prevented former slaves from economic growth.
Farmers of color have historically been excluded from land ownership and agricultural lending services. Despite these inequities in land ownership and food access, Black activists and communities have contributed greatly to the movement for food justice, making strides on a local, state, and federal level.
Black Panthers’ Breakfast Program
You may know the Black Panther Party for their radical activism against police brutality during the Civil Rights era and for advancing the Black Power movement. However, you may not know that the Black Panthers played an essential role in the fight against childhood hunger in the United States. From 1969 to the early 1970s, the Black Panthers ran their Free Breakfast for School Children Program.
They started this social program to address a critical community need but also to fuel revolution by ensuring black people’s survival. Party members and volunteers solicited donations from local grocery stores, consulted with nutritionists on healthy breakfast options for children, and prepared and served the food free of charge in the morning. What started in an Episcopal church in Oakland eventually grew to 45 programs, feeding tens of thousands of hungry children across the country.
Despite the Black Panther Party’s efforts to help their community, the FBI still viewed them as a threat and tried to neutralize their social programs, including the free breakfast program. However, the Black Panthers’ public efforts to feed children gained national attention, resulting in the government expanding its own school food programs. By the time the Black Panthers’ program was dismantled in the early 1970s, the USDA’s free breakfast efforts took off. The School Breakfast Program was officially authorized by Congress in 1975, and participation has only grown since with over 14 million children being fed every morning in 2016. Without the (at the time) radical efforts by the Black Panthers, the federal free breakfast programs might not be what they are today.
African American Hunger
To wrap up this Black History Month post we must reflect on how low-income, minority neighborhoods are most impacted by poverty and hunger. The effects of slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and discriminatory policies are still harshly felt today by the most vulnerable populations. According to Feeding America, African American households are more than twice as likely to face hunger compared to white, non-Hispanic households. 1 in 4 African American children struggle with food insecurity, which makes the Black Panther Party’s breakfast program that much more important.
At Second Harvest Food Bank, we are committed to serving everyone in our communities who may face food insecurity. We recognize that many communities of color are disproportionately affected by hunger. That is why our programs and services are applied through a racial equity lens dedicated to improving access for those most vulnerable. With our collective efforts toward hunger relief and advocacy for greater systemic change, we hope to create a more equitable food system where hunger is eliminated for all.
Keep learning throughout Black History Month:
The Color of Food by Natasha Bowens
Farming While Black by Leah Penniman
Food Justice Now! Deepening the Roots of Social Struggle by Joshua Sbicca
Freedom Farmers by Monica M. White
Racist Sandwich podcast: Erasing Black Barbecue
Southern Foodways Alliance Gravy podcast: Hostesses of the Movement
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