Following the uprisings sparked by the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, resources in underserved communities became even more limited. But community members will not let the people go hungry | Photo by Jacob Cuevas

In January 1969, the Black Panther Party (BPP) launched its Free Breakfast for School Children program by serving a menu of chocolate milk, eggs, meat, cereal and fresh oranges to the children of Oakland, Calif., before they headed off to school. Within weeks, the program grew from serving tens of students, to hundreds, and later thousands as BPP chapters in other cities adopted the practice, thus creating a tradition for Black revolutionaries to feed their communities.  

Coming off of a Memorial Day weekend that left protesters exhausted from marching in the name of justice for Black lives and neighborhoods devastated from looting, the city responded by cutting off roads and highway exits that give access to downtown and the North side, from south and west. All downtown exits from the Dan Ryan and 290 expressways were closed, the CTA “L” rail system was suspended, Lake Shore Drive was closed past 31st Street and all bridges downtown except LaSalle street were lifted. 

For the few streets that were accessible, National Guard and Chicago Police Department (CDP)  officers restricted traffic. This tactic left folks in these neighborhoods to fend for themselves while their local resources were rendered inaccessible due to rioting and unplanned closures of essential stores, including the Food 4 Less on North & Cicero in Austin, and the Jewel at Lake Meadows in Bronzeville. 

On May 31, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced that their free meal program would be suspended on June 1. Following the closure of school buildings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, CPS began a program on March 15 that allows any students to pick up a food bag covering three days of breakfast and lunch. The suspension became a call to action for community organizers and charitable organizations throughout the city to feed the children.

Limited food options and lack of nutrition have had a profound effect on students’ ability to perform well in school. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, students are still expected to log on— despite limited access to the internet— check in, attend lectures and complete assignments for classes daily. 

A 2013 study published in the Frontiers of Modern Neuroscience found that eating breakfast daily has a positive on academic performance. The Black Panthers realized this connection early on in the lifespan of their program, thanks to feedback from the schools. 

According to Ruth Beckford, a parishioner at St. Augustine Episcopal Church in Oakland who helped with the Panthers’ program, “The school principal came down and told us how different the children were,” when she was interviewed for an article in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers in 2009. “They weren’t falling asleep in class [and] they weren’t crying with stomach cramps,” she continued.

On the evening of May 31, prior to the CPS announcement, Kemdah Stroud, founder of Thankful for Chicago, had made plans to partner with a friend to provide nourishment and free rides to protesters on the frontlines. “When I heard that CPS was stopping the program, I knew immediately that our mission had shifted,” she says. “We had to feed the kids.”

“I reached out to [Social Works], and they were organizing their own food drive in Englewood,” Stroud said. Social Works is a non-profit that promotes arts programming and civic engagement for youth. 

“We were able to partner up to split the resources between two sites, in Englewood and Garfield Park,” Stroud said. “We continued the collaboration for the first few days but now we’re doing it ourselves at Garfield.”

June 1 was more than a success. Within three hours, Stroud had rounded up about $10,000 in donations and many individuals were eager to lend their services and space to what she named The People’s Free Food Program. Michael Airhart, CEO of Taste for the Homeless— a nonprofit that travels the city to cook hot meals and provide clothing for homeless people— brought out his grill to cook for people, and independent chef Big Vino lent space and materials to increase the capacity for hot meals.

Stroud had been an organizer for years prior to founding Thankful for Chicago in 2019, working in the past with Chicago Votes as an event curator, and Save Money Save Life as operations specialist. As executive director of Thankful for Chicago, she collaborates with other non-profits for assistance in executing ideas, and signal boosting their charitable efforts.

Photo by Jacob Cuevas
Photo by Jacob Cuevas

The John Walt Foundation (JWF), and Executive Director Nachelle Pugh, John’s mother, is one of many collaborators. JWF also stepped up to provide for those in need of essentials on the city’s west side in their drive called “Feed the West Side.” 

Pugh began pulling together funding for a food and essentials drive on June 3, after some JWF organizers, including Pivot Gang member Frsh Waters, volunteered with Kemdah at Garfield Park and Englewood. 

“I went to Frsh and asked him what he thought of taking the lead on organizing a food drive,” Pugh says. “He wasn’t sure where to start, but we sat down and planned out how we could do this.” 

They started by putting out a call for donations the next morning; and by noon, they had raised more than $6,000, more than enough money to start shopping. “We got diapers, feminine hygiene products, food and baby formula,” she says. 

“Austin is already a known food desert,” Pugh says. “All people had was mostly corner stores, a Food 4 Less, and a Save-A-Lot. After the [recent] riots, all of that was shut down.”

On June 6, JWF set up at Columbus Park in Austin to provide residents of the area with groceries. Pugh doesn’t plan to stop now that the CPS program is back up and running. “Giving people free meals is great, but now we can give people groceries for the kids to eat at home,” she says.

Since the Memorial Day uprisings, there has been a nationwide increase in community self-sufficiency. Besides food drives there have been mutual aid funds like the ones designated for Irving Park, and Logan Square, plus pro bono legal aid from individuals as well as organizations such as the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.

There’s more to survival than just food, and the Free Breakfast for Children program was just one of more than 60 survival programs started by the Black Panther Party. These programs included ambulatory services, legal clinics, free clothing and shoes and more.

Nachelle Pugh [second from right], two of her daughters, Frsh Waters [kneeling, first from left] and more posing at the JWF food drive | Photo courtesy of Nachelle Pugh

“We were even able to get CVS gift cards for people who might need to travel out the neighborhood for prescriptions,” Pugh says about their efforts beyond groceries. The John Walt Foundation also has plans for a backpack giveaway whenever school starts back.

According to Stroud, Thankful for Chicago has no intentions of slowing down either. “Up until now I had been trying to find a way to get things moving with Thankful for Chicago,” she says. “This is an opportunity for us to continuously make a difference.”

Stroud recalls discussing the efforts of the Black Panther Party to provide meals, with members of the Thankful for Chicago team and gleaning from their mission a clear message: “The change we want to see really starts with the kids.”

Matt Harvey is a staff reporter with The TRiiBE: