Every morning, the Portland chapter of the Black Panther Party had a routine.
Just before 6 a.m., a driver would pick up former U.S. Navy cook “Big Jeff” along with a heavy haul of food, and they would head over to the Highland United Church of Christ on Ninth Avenue. (The church has since moved.) Once they arrived at the church, a few other Panthers helped unpack and prep the food, cutting bread and cracking eggs for French Toast. Then three or four of them would greet the kids and serve up hot fresh plates as Jeff churned them out of the kitchen. Finally, after the kids finished eating and set off for the nearby Highland School, whoever was on duty would clean up and head to the market to stock up for the next day.
Kent Ford was the man overseeing all of this. As he told Splinter over the phone, he was nicknamed “the Captain.” From late 1969 to 1974, Ford and the rest of his Black Panthers chapter served some 125 schoolchildren free daily breakfasts before school. Dozens of chapters across the country were doing the same: at its height in 1969-1970, Black Panthers across the country were reportedly serving fresh breakfasts to 20,000 kids, soliciting food donations from local businesses and collecting donations from neighbors. It was a form of mutual aid: “We were all low-income,” Ford said. “We looked at it just as serving the people.”
Now 75, Ford said he still runs into adults in Portland who fondly recall those mornings. “I’m telling you, just last week I met a man on the street who said to me ‘hey, I used to eat your breakfasts as a kid,’” he recalled. “It puts a big smile on your face. That stays with you.”
The Black Panthers’ free breakfasts were part of a constellation of “survival programs” the Party implemented in poor black communities otherwise denied goods and services by both a racist government and by the free market. But the breakfast program in particular became such a resounding success that it provided a model for a federal program eventually enacted in 1975, which to this day provides over $3 billion in free breakfasts to low-income children before the school day begins.
The Panthers were operating in a very specific context, but the basic intellectual and moral underpinnings of their free breakfast program—its insistence that society should take communal action to keep its people fed and cared for—is still potent and, sadly, revolutionary today. As such, the Panthers offered a blueprint not only for community provision of food, but of the labor and resources to prepare and serve it. That labor - everything it takes to turn food into a meal - is a dramatically underemphasized driver of nutritional inequality between the rich and poor. Making healthy meals consistently requires a lot of work: it takes menu planning, schlepping to the market, chopping, skinning, cooking, and cleanup, not to mention pricier ingredients and fortitude against near-constant predatory junk food advertising.
Moreover, every step of the process is influenced by class. Poorer people are disproportionately likely to lack nearby stores or reliable transportation, time or energy to patiently follow a recipe, or solid options for cleaning or storing kitchen items. Meanwhile, wealthier people can easily afford far healthier conveniences like salad bars or meal kits. But if confining the labor of cooking to individual families exacerbates inequalities, is there a way to socialize it or spread it more widely? What does equitable meal policy look like?
To better understand the labor of cooking, it helps to understand its relationship to labor. In Marxist parlance, care work like feeding, childrearing and elder care are all elements of social reproduction, or the process by which society cranks out and sustains workers, who subsequently can’t survive without selling their labor to capital. That means that most of us have to fit all of our living around work. At best, this is a tricky balancing act; at worst it is nearly impossible. Having a wage-earning partner or family member with whom to split social reproduction can help, but the poorer, more stressed out, or more more precarious someone is, the more their care work suffers. If cutting labor costs enriches bosses, it forces workers to make do with even fewer resources to sustain stable lives and families.
While the United States has done far less than many peer nations to support social reproduction via the welfare state, there are heartening hints that the tide may be turning: a wave of teachers’ strikes have won widespread support as battles for the common good of communities, and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren released a comprehensive plan for universal childcare. But when it comes to feeding, there seems to be less political imagination: while public programs like SNAP subsidize grocery purchases, they do little to address all the labor needed to transform groceries into daily meals. Collectivized meal programs that do exist—like the free breakfasts borne out of the Black Panther programs or free school lunches—are heavily means-tested or only available in certain schools and communities.
Unsurprisingly, forcing already overstretched families to fend for themselves every meal makes nutritious eating far less accessible for poor families, effectively punishing them for their class status with comparatively poorer health. Poor people consume diets lower in fruits and vegetables than do their wealthier peers, and are twice as likely to have poor diets overall. But at least one study found that time was a greater barrier to healthy meal-making than money for poor people; two others found that poor people were likelier to experience “time scarcity” that pushed them toward convenience foods which are nearly always less nutritious. Meanwhile, the obesity gap between rich and poor children continues to rise, and poor diet quality is the leading risk factor in premature deaths.
However clear the evidence may be that unhealthy diets naturally stem from the subordination of social reproduction to wage labor, we are nonetheless inundated by cultural messaging about the sacredness of home cooking. Instagram stars and lifestyle bloggers show off intricate family meals; mommy forums and celebrity cookbooks are brimming with advice and admonishment about making sure kids eat a variety of vegetables. Gwyneth Paltrow’s “food stamp challenge” of 2015 even framed at-home food production on a $29 weekly budget as a creative puzzle, which is surely at odds with poverty’s draining effect on one’s mental energies.
Ultimately, pushing something as labor and resource-intensive as cooking as a universal path toward healthy diets is an ineffective individual solution to a structural problem, as sociologists Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton and Sinikka Elliott argue in Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It. For their book, the trio conducted years of deep ethnographic research into the day-to-day structural barriers to feeding families healthy meals. Many of those obstacles boiled down to peoples’ lack of control over their labor, both in the workplace and at home.
As Bowen, Brenton and Elliott tell it, healthy meals don’t get made despite best intentions for a very simple reason: it’s hard. And the more their labor inside and outside of the home is exploited, the tougher it gets. Waged jobs paid too little to procure healthy foods easily, or scheduled shifts too erratically to plan routines around. When off the clock, the women depicted in the pages of Pressure Cooker similarly lacked control over their care work, having to allocate comparatively scarce time to cooking, cleaning and transit that richer folks may displace onto task rabbits or Uber drivers.
“One thing we’ve written about quite a bit is just how little control working class families have over their time,” Elliott told me over the phone. “They have these incredibly complex work schedules, they’re relying on family members, transportation is challenging, social services require entire afternoons…the lack of control over time was huge. The idea that the time is there if you just use it well is so out of touch.”
Insecure housing also leaves many people without adequate means for at-home food production, including shoddy kitchen supplies, insect infestations and limited counter, storage and cleaning space. Cultural emphasis on healthy cooking doesn’t account for poor and working class housing, Bowen explained: “a lot of the families in our study didn’t have a kitchen table or chairs for everyone, or went relatively long periods of time with a stove that didn’t work…when I read advice on how to make family dinners a priority, it strikes me again and again how out of touch it was with many families in our study who were working really hard, getting together with their kids and their meals still didn’t look like that.”
And yet, around 50% of American families do eat together at home nearly every night, and see that time as an important contrast to the hours they sell to capitalism to survive. But all of this left Bowen with a nagging question: “If [eating healthy family dinners] is important and we’re being told it’s important, why is it getting no support?”
The authors urge an expansion of social meal provision programs not dissimilar to the famous Black Panther breakfasts: community canteens, universal free breakfasts and lunches in schools, and wraparound prepared meal services in community centers, daycares, and churches. Brenton’s local childcare provider, for example, began offering low-cost healthy take-home meals to parents once they realized how many were overwhelmed by the task ahead of them. During the Oakland teachers’ strike in February, a coalition called “Bread for Ed” organized to distribute free meals to students and teachers in solidarity - a mission they tied directly to the Black Panther free breakfast program that began in that very city a half-century before.
When you consider just how much work it takes to cook healthy meals each day, it becomes clear that we might not be doing the best job allocating it. After al, we have market-based solutions to the demands of at-home food production, and people with the means to displace this labor all the time—they go to restaurants, order take-out, go to salad bars, or even hire private cooks. The value of being able to “buy back time” you’d otherwise spend cooking is taken for granted by privileged people; don’t other folks deserve the same?