The Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children (known as WIC for short), a federal program that provides nutritional assistance to malnourished mothers and children, was enacted in 1972 as an amendment to the Child Nutrition Act of 1966.
Initially funded as a two-year pilot program, WIC was permanently reauthorized by Congress in 1975 and today offers federal grants to states for “supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk.” The program is administrated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Impetus for the legislation is usually credited to an accumulating body of research in the 1960s identifying hunger and malnutrition as a major national problem. A 1969 report by the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health concluded that hunger and poverty existed on a “disgraceful scale” across the United States, and urged the federal government to take immediate action to close the “hunger gap” among poorer Americans. After some pilot programs launched by the Nixon administration failed to produce the desired results, a bill containing the WIC amendment and improvements to existing school nutrition programs was passed by Congress in 1972.
There is an alternative account of how WIC came about, however. According to this narrative, the program grew out of (or was at least inspired by) organized efforts by the Black Panther Party (BPP) to help feed single mothers and their children in predominantly African-American communities in the late 1960s.
Here it is in meme form, as posted in February 2017 recognition of Black History Month:
— AFROPUNK (@afropunk) February 13, 2017
One also finds the claim repeated on web sites such as Counter Current News and Urban Intellectuals, who cite as evidence a list of 65 community programs allegedly created by the Black Panthers during their heyday, including a “WIC (Women Infants, and Children) Program.”
But though it’s easily corroborated that the Panthers launched a community food program in 1968 called Free Breakfast for Children, an effort some believe provided inspiration for the federal government’s school breakfast program (if not for WIC itself), we could find no evidence that the Panthers ever operated a program called WIC, or which bore any close resemblance to the USDA program.
The roll-out of the Free Breakfast for Children program marked a turning point, however short-lived, in the Black Panthers’ public image. From its inception as an armed, revolutionary organization in 1966 (J. Edgar Hoover called BPP “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”), press coverage of the Panthers was overwhelmingly negative, focusing exclusively on their militant rhetoric and violent confrontations with police. The breakfast program provided the opportunity to show a kinder, gentler side of the party, albeit still fraught with revolutionary politics. The New York Times reported in June 1969:
In the Bay Area, every chapter of the Black Panther Party is involved in providing free breakfasts for children. The project involves at least six cities in the state.
“Right now,” Bobby Seale, chairman and co-founder of the party said last week, “we are feeding over 1,000 kids every day right here in the Bay Area.” Seale added that the program, which was also operating in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Los Angeles, Kansas City and other major cities, feeds 10,000 children daily.
In addition to what they can collect at the rallies and demonstrations, the Panthers also make the rounds of business establishments in the area. Their demand that merchants doing business in the black communities make contributions is firm. One large supermarket, Safeway, is now the target of a Panther-led boycott because, according to Seale, it refused to contribute $100 a week to the breakfast program.
While the Panthers say that the program was initiated “to feed hungry children,” they make no effort to mask its political side.
Most of the church basements and halls where the breakfasts are served have huge posters and pictures of Black Panther leaders and heroes of the black nationalist movement pasted on the walls.
The “Free Huey” shouts are almost constant. “Free Huey” is a Panther slogan that refers to Huey Newton, one of the founders of the organization and its minister of defense who was jailed last year after a manslaughter conviction arising from the fatal shooting of an Oakland policeman.
That it was partly a public relations effort doesn’t change the fact that the Panthers were providing a sorely needed service to impoverished children which could very well have provided the impetus for the federal government to step in. There is no doubt, moreover, that members of Congress charged with solving America’s hunger problem were aware of the free breakfast program. Testifying before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs in May 1969, California legislator Jesse Unruh said, “The Black Panthers are supplying more free breakfasts to California school children than the federal government does.” It was intended (and no doubt heard) as a wake-up call.
Still, it’s hard to make the case that the Panthers’ program served as an exact prototype for Sen. Hubert Humphrey’s WIC legislation, which was still three years away from being introduced in Congress. There were few real similarities between the programs. Although the Panthers launched other initiatives (including free medical clinics) to help people in various communities, the free breakfasts were for children alone. As its name implies, the federal government’s Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children was much broader in scope. Plus, it had nothing to do with serving breakfast. There was a separate USDA program for that.
The federal School Breakfast Program was established under the Child Nutrition Act in 1966, and it had already been in operation for three years by the time the Black Panther Party instituted its community-based programs. That’s not to say that school breakfasts were an unqualified success, however. Partly because it met with political resistance and funding constraints, it took years for the federal program to ramp up to the point where it even came close to meeting the needs of the population it was meant to help. The Panthers helped expose the many shortcomings of that and other government food assistance programs.
Historian Susan Levine, author of School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program, gives the Panthers their due in that regard, but noted in an interview with Eater.com that lobbying groups such as the Committee on School Lunch Participation likely had a greater effect on federal policy:
“The Panthers were part of the general context in the late 1960s,” Levine says. “But I think CSLP was probably more specifically influential, because they actually went to Congress and testified, and their report got a lot of attention in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death.”
It is a fact, in any case, that the number of meals served to children in the federal school breakfast program quadrupled between 1968 and 1972. It’s not implausible to suppose that the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for Children program played at least an inspirational role in that effort.