Celebrating National School Breakfast Week and the Women and Black Leaders Who Started the School Food Movement

The timing of National School Breakfast Week (NSBW) could not be more perfect; It comes on the heels of Black History Month and at the beginning of Women’s History Month. Given the significant role Black women played in shaping school food and the history of school breakfast, it makes sense to celebrate these three histories concurrently.

The history of school food is inherently femininized. Prior to federally organized school lunches, mothers were primarily responsible for packing lunches for their school-aged children. By the late 1800s, more women were accepted to universities and worked outside of the home, and women began fighting for federal, state, and local governments to institutionalize lunch programs. Black women had been leading community organizing, mutual aid, and activism for decades, and paved the way in lobbying for government support of school food programs by the 1920s.

These programs weren’t universally accepted in the beginning. During war times, providing free or subsidized meals to schoolchildren was seen by some as a socialist or communist agenda. Undeterred, women continued fighting for these social programs throughout the early 1900s and nonprofit school lunch programs began to crop up, especially with the focus on Victory Gardens and community canning facilities throughout the Progressive Era.

In 1946, the school lunch program was officially adopted under the National School Lunch Act, and school breakfast came a couple decades later in 1966. As with many social programs, there were gross inequalities in the accessibility and quality of various lunch programs. Due to the long history of racism and segregation in American schools, many students who needed school meals were unable to access them. White school staff were placed in positions of management, and were therefore able to limit the budgets and resources of schools serving students of color. It was common for schools to prepare large batches of meals at white schools and transport the meals to other schools. As majority Black schools often lacked the infrastructure necessary to reheat the meals, children were often left to eat cold meals that centered white foods and culture. (Read more on this in The Labor of Lunch by Jennifer E. Gaddis.)

Women again took matters into their own hands. In the late 1960’s, Jean Fairfax of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) designed a nationwide survey of school lunch programs. This project coordinated women representing various racial and religious groups to conduct community-based research with the common goal of providing accessible and free food for all school children. The results were published in a 1968 report titled, ‘Their Daily Bread,’ and Jean Fairfax testified before Congress several times to share its findings, leading to legislation to improve the school lunch program.

At the same time, the Black Panther Party began feeding children free breakfasts to address inequity and ensure that Black children were nourished in schools across America. In one of the most successful examples of community care ever seen in United States history, the Black Panthers laid the foundation necessary to institutionalize a free breakfast program across the nation. The program was dissolved following FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s 1969 statement that “the Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country,” which led to a series of controversial actions that ultimately ended the program. However, the movement for school meals gained traction after parents and school officials observed the positive changes in children who were fed well at school. Shortly after the dismantling of the Panthers’ program, the USDA School Breakfast Program was permanently authorized.

Today, women continue to advocate for advances and changes to the program to ensure all children in the U.S. can access healthy meals. As part of our collaborative Farm to Institution NY State (FINYS) initiative, AFT advocates for improved school meals in the state of New York by leading the New York Grown Food for New York Kids Coalition.

This year, we are calling on the legislature and Governor Hochul to add school breakfast to the 30% Farm to School reimbursement program initiative to increase the amount of healthy, local foods on our youth’s trays across the state. We pay homage to the many women, and particularly the Black leaders, who have made healthy school breakfasts possible. To get involved, send a letter to your local legislators calling for support to schools in increasing local New York products on students’ trays for breakfast.