Saturday, December 3, 2011

Food Justice: All power to the people!

Multiple choice (select best answer) The Black Panthers
A. sold copies of Mao’s Little Red Book to earn money to buy guns, which became part of their uniform while “policing the police”
B. led an armed march to the California State Assembly to protest the Mulford Bill (prohibiting the public carrying of loaded firearms, which was enacted in 1967)
C. were called “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover
D. had a government in exile in Algeria
E. were among the original leaders of the U.S. food justice movement
F. all of the above

Correct answer: F. Not many people know the Black Panthers as food justice activists?

At last month’s Food Justice conference presented by Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC), the legacy of the Black Panther Party (BPP) was recognized during the Food Sovereignty Prize ceremony. (See video at

On Bank Transfer Day (November 5, 2011), a Saturday afternoon that went from overcast to rainy, I joined the pre-conference “Panthers to Pitchforks: Black Panthers Legacy Tour"( led by former BPP Chief of Staff David Hilliard.

This school bus was our “roving classroom” for the 4-hour tour. (I’ll just focus on the food aspects for this posting.)

Like many idealistic college students in the mid-1960s, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale wanted to help the poor and hungry neglected by the government. They were impatient with the civil rights movement’s preaching of moderation and nonviolence, as dreams and promises for equality remained unfulfilled. They wanted radical change and did their homework before taking up arms, learning that California allowed one to carry an unconcealed, loaded rifle or shotgun in public at the time. (Newton studied at San Francisco Law School.) On October 15, 1966, Newton and Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland. Self-defense included the constitutional right to bear arms and defend against racially-motivated police brutality, as well as their Ten Point Program’s self-defense against hunger, homelessness, joblessness and poverty.

We made a stop into the site of the first BPP Office, which now houses a bakery ( owned by a former beneficiary of the Panther’s Free Breakfast Program.

BPP weekly newspaper collage inside bakery wall

“What We Want, What We Believe”

Beginning in 1969, and inspired by Mao’s advice to “serve the people,” the BPP offered at least 65 free community “survival pending revolution” programs including free food and hot breakfasts for children.

Our tour included a drive-by across the street from St. Augustine’s Church, original site of the Free Breakfast for Children Program, which expanded to feeding 100,000 schoolchildren daily across the country. According to Hilliard, the BPP started food programs as a way to show the community that they did more than “shoot it out with cops.”

Three years before the BPP’s Free Breakfast for Children Program began, President LBJ had signed into law the Child Nutrition Act of 1966, which initiated the federal government’s pilot School Breakfast Program to feed “nutritionally needy” children because “good food is essential to good learning.” (

However, according to (which claims to be “the most accurate and comprehensive source for all things BPP”): “the Free Breakfast for Children Program, which spread from being operated at one small Catholic church, in the Fillmore district of San Francisco, to every major city in America where there was a Party chapter. Thousands upon thousands of poor and hungry children were fed free breakfasts every day by the Party under this program. The magnitude and powerful impact of this program was such that the federal government was pressed and shamed into adopting a similar program for public schools across the country, while the FBI assailed the free breakfast program as nothing more than a propaganda tool used by the Party to carry out its "communist" agenda.”

St Augustine Episcopal Church (now St. Andrew’s Baptist Church) stop
BPP members included high school and college youth activists. They studied price supports and learned that farmers were dumping milk in order to guarantee a market price. As a result, the BPP began sending out members to dairy suppliers, supermarkets and convenience stores to ask for donations of perishable food that otherwise would be thrown away.

Hilliard’s home stop: Hilliard said he didn’t like carrying a gun, but his focus was on organizing programs to “serve the people, body and soul.” Yes, that’s Stuffed and Starved author Raj Patel ( seated next to Hilliard standing in the bus. Patel wrote, "What the Black Panthers Can Teach the U.S. Food Movement," a chapter in the book, Food Movements Unite!, at

The BPP’s second office was the site for free vegetable distribution, which was delivered by Emmett Grogan and the Diggers from SF Farmers Market to low-income residents daily.

In addition to free distribution of food, the Panthers offered other survival programs that were also free: medical clinic to test for sickle-cell anemia; clothing distribution; education; and assistance for the elderly. Since I work with the elderly, I was interested in learning more about Seniors Against a Fearful Environment (SAFE). When Hilliard said the Panthers would escort seniors to banks to cash Social Security checks, I asked why they were helping seniors do business with commercial banks instead of credit unions? Hilliard explained that was just the situation with seniors in the 1970s.

The BPP dissolved in 1982.

BPP fist: "All power to the people!"

Parallels to Occupy movement

Like the BPP, the Occupy movement is a response to injustice. Hilliard reminded us that the BPP’s survival programs were put in place so “we could live long enough to bring about transformation.” He mentioned that he met with Occupy Oakland campers, discussing the need to deliver something on a real program level so that the community gets involved. He thought Occupy Oakland lacked concrete programs so the masses are just not as concerned; the working classes are not in Occupy because they don’t have time to “hang out” when they’re hustling to get their basic needs met. He added that while there’s no need to tell them how oppressed they are, there’s a need for solutions and an agenda for progress to get the attention of the media. Hilliard reminded us of Egypt’s 10-year struggle because “revolution is not an event, but a process that involves talking to politicians in control and being savvy in the long haul.”

Just prior to joining the tour, I admired the gardening activities at Occupy SF and Oakland ( I’ve always viewed organic farming as essential for survival: a solution and an agenda for all times, because the practice of farming satisfies so many needs in Maslow’s hierarchy: physiological (food), safety (health), love/belonging (friendship/community), esteem (respect) and self-actualization.

Did the Panthers progress to pitchforks for farming? I don’t see that organic farming was included in BPP’s survival programs listed at, but I found an article about an ex-Panther who mellowed out while farming in exile in Tanzania ( I’m actually relieved that the Panthers weren’t inspired enough to copy Mao’s Down to the Countryside Movement, which forced urban youth to work in farming villages. Tanzania’s similar policy of villagization under Nyerere’s Arusha Declaration was a failure.

The Free Farm succeeds because we’re urban farming based on our own free will :-) We invite you to join us in our community survival without firearms.

Public Service Announcements:

Wed., Dec. 7, 2011, 1:30 - 3:30 pm SF Food Security Task Force
City Hall - 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, Rm. 278, SF 94102

Wed., Dec. 7, 2011, 12 noon-1:30 pm
Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won’t Do
UC Berkeley Labor Center, 2521 Channing Way, Berkeley
What is it like doing the back-breaking work of immigrants? To find out, Gabriel Thompson spent a year working alongside Latino immigrants, who initially thought he was either crazy or an undercover immigration agent. Combining personal narrative with investigative reporting, Thompson shines a bright light on the underside of the American economy, exposing harsh working conditions, union busting, and lax government enforcement—while telling the stories of workers, undocumented immigrants and desperate US citizens alike, forced to live with chronic pain in the pursuit of $8 an hour.

Mon., Dec. 12, 2011, 9:30 am-3:30 pm Be a “Community Connector”
Eastern Park Apartments -711 Eddy St., SF 94109
Register at or call 415-821-1003
This workshop is designed for individuals who want to create neighborhoods where individuals can age in community. It will be both practical and inspirational, exploring the connection between hospitality and social networks, the basic elements of strong social networks, how network analysis can assist making durable community connections and the role of Tyze and other on-line social media in promoting contribution and inclusion.
The Community Living Campaign (CLC) engages the power of relationships to eliminate barriers to aging in community by strengthening networks of support - for individuals and across neighborhoods.
CLC will soon be providing training and support on how to use social media at senior and community centers across SF as a part of the City's BTOP technology grant. Expanding the team of trained and supported Community Connectors is key to success. This workshop builds on the work of the PLAN Institute and Tyze Personal Networks of Canada, as well as the experience of CLC's Community Connectors in San Francisco.

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