The Free Breakfast for School Children Program was a community service program run by the Black Panther Party as an early manifestation of the social mission envisioned by founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale along with their founding of the Oakland Community School, which provided high-level education to 150 children from impoverished urban neighborhoods. Inspired by contemporary research about the essential role of breakfast for optimal schooling, the Panthers would cook and serve food to the poor inner city youth of the area. Initiated in January 1969 at St. Augustine's Church in Oakland, California, the program became so popular that by the end of the year, the Panthers set up kitchens in cities across the US, feeding over 10,000 children every day before they went to school.
The Free Breakfast Program became the central organizing activity of the group. The reach and success of the program in so many communities underscored the inadequacies of the federal government's then-flagging and underresourced lunch programs in public schools across the country. Despite its successes, Federal authorities attempted to discredit and derail the Free Breakfast Program. Among other actions, authorities raided breakfast program locations while children were eating.
As depicted in the 2015 documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, it was Huey P. Newton, upon release from jail in 1970, who revitalized the breakfast program as a key social focus for the Panthers in Oakland; from exile in Algeria, Eldridge Cleaver protested that prioritizing the breakfast program diluted the true mission of the Black Panther Party, which Cleaver emphasized had to remain an "any means necessary" political opposition to U.S. government practices, thus concretizing a schism in the leadership of the Black Panther Party – into Cleaver vs. Newton factions – that led to its eventual demise.
The Free Breakfast for Children Program was one among more than 60 community social programs created by the Black Panther Party. They were renamed Survival Programs in 1971. These were operated by Party members under the slogan "survival pending revolution." Another Survival Program started by the Black Panther Party was referred to as "medical self-defense" with the creation of healthcare clinics and their own ambulance services.
Fred Hampton, leader of the Chicago local, helped organize a number of community programs. These included five different breakfast programs on the West Side, a free medical center, a door to door program of health services (which offered testing for sickle cell anemia), and blood drives for the Cook County Hospital. The Chicago party also reached out to local gangs to clean up their acts, get them away from crime and bring them into the class war. The Party's efforts met with wide success, and Hampton's audiences and organized contingent grew by the day.