American Food Culture can hardly be summed up better than by studying the supermarket. Self-service grocery stores began in 1916 with Piggly Wiggly, which paved the way for future chains like Kroger, American Stores, and others to explode onto the scene in the 1920s. By 1930, the first “supermarket” opened in a warehouse in New York City; King Kullen emphasized volume and savings, and soon other chains followed suit. The supermarket model is designed around a simple premise: meet the food and beverage needs of the average American consumer in one single location. Over the years, supermarkets have spread across the country and the world, building an empire on this model of centralization, but in doing so, they have created and reinforced a major public health crisis here in the United States.
Supermarkets are constantly evolving and have changed drastically since their inception. Two things, however, have remained the same all this time: supermarkets sell food, and people need food. So how could anything this simple possibly be controversial? Ultimately, it boils down to access. The American Food Gap - the failure of the market to serve the food needs of the poor - has been highly correlated with, if not a direct result of, a total lack of supermarkets in impoverished areas. Since the 1980s, many programs have been implemented to aid poorer communities in accessing food, but the food gap persists to this day. The USDA publishes yearly reports on Household Food Security in the United States, and in September of 2016, the USDA Economic Research Service published the findings for 2015. From this report we can see that in 2015 13.4 percent of U.S. individuals were classified as “food insecure,” with 8.7 percent facing “low food security” (reduced quality, variety or desirability of foods) and 4.6 percent facing “very low food security” (disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake). These numbers have, tragically, been trending upwards since 1995 and are due in large part to the continued shift from local grocers and shops to centralized supermarkets. Small groceries respond to the needs and desires of the people they serve and are located within their communities, increasing access both physically and economically. Regional supermarkets, however, are typically located outside of urban centers, creating problems for low-income communities without reliable transportation and leaving them with unhealthy fast food restaurants or gas station mini-marts as the only sources of food. Food insecurity is both a justice and a public health concern and represents a major failing of the United States to provide for the continued health and vitality of its citizens.
Food insecurity numbers become even more troubling when examined in greater detail. While food aid programs have certainly worked to increase global food availability and fight hunger abroad, these programs often fail to address the widening of the food gap at home, particularly for minority communities. While only 10.0 percent of white households face food insecurity, non-white households are much more likely to be classified as food insecure. Specifically, 21.5 percent of black households and 19.1 percent of Hispanic households are food insecure, and each group has a considerably larger relative percentage of households classified as having very low food security. Black Americans are almost three times as likely and Hispanic Americans are more than twice as likely to be classified as having low food security compared to white Americans. The consistent reinforcement of economic and racial inequality in the United States has created and fostered this food injustice, but the environmental justice movement can look to one surprising organization for guidance in continuing the fight for food security.
The Black Panther Party came about as a reaction to the increased criminalization of urban black communities by state and local police. It was formed in direct opposition to systematic police violence against black men, and it is most known for its focus on fighting against excessive force and police killings. The Black Panther Party grew exponentially in its early stages and soon established a multitude of community service programs, all of which framed self-defense mechanisms as movements to guarantee the vitality of black communities. Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panthers, referred to these as “survival programs” - not as solutions to specific problems but as broad tools for organizing communities and engaging them in political education and activism.
One such initiative was the Free Breakfast for School Children Program which mobilized members to fight food insecurity in their communities. Called “creative and revolutionary” by Rev. Jesse Jackson, the program worked to bring food to the food deserts plaguing urban black communities. The implementation of this community-based project sheds light on a side of food insecurity not often seen, one guided by a “vision for radical change.” Breakfast for Children balanced a prioritizing of feeding the hungry with an overarching goal of radical transformation as the only permanent solution. Despite its efficacy in addressing food insecurity and organizing community engagement, Breakfast for Children was targeted by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover who wrote in 1969 that it "represents the best and most influential activity going for the BPP and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for." What was so frightening about the Breakfast for Children Program?
The status quo was threatened by the Breakfast for Children Program because it addressed the problems of food insecurity and systemic racism simultaneously, and it was effective at doing so. It brought communities together around a common cause and fostered political education in order to illuminate the reasons for - and solutions to - the systems that bring about food insecurity. In the spirit of the Breakfast for Children Program, the environmental justice community must recognize the scale of change necessary for true solutions as well as the intersectionality of food security. Hunger is not just a problem disproportionately impacting non-white households but also female-headed households (30.3 percent face food insecurity), and it is therefore critical to understand the systems that create unjust distribution of wealth, power, and agency if we are to mount a successful movement for food justice.
The history of American food insecurity and the many victories for food availability give hope to those who stay hungry. The Black Panther Party’s vision of a world where we recognize that access to quality food, healthcare, and education are rights and not privileges is one that should guide today’s environmental justice movement. Like the Black Panther Party itself, the environmental justice movement faces resistance at nearly every step of the way toward an equitable future, but this should only push activists harder to create the change necessary. The Black Panther Party created the Free Breakfast for School Children Program in 1968, and the US government did everything in its power to dismantle this program. Seven years later, the US government formalized the School Breakfast Program. Though the Black Panther Party itself was no longer around to see their victory, the USDA School Breakfast Program is a testament to the power and impact that community-led programs can have long into the future. We must learn from and continue this legacy of community-based activism and whole systems thinking. In doing so we can eliminate the legacy of hunger that has plagued our most vulnerable communities.