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New Food Program Uses Historic Model To Bring Breakfast To St. Louis Kids

Free Breakfast Program creator Jeneisha Harris hands out plates of food to children at the Youth and Family Center with the help of volunteer Harold Watson.
Free Breakfast Program
Free Breakfast Program creator Jeneisha Harris hands out plates of food to children at the Youth and Family Center with the help of volunteer Harold Watson.

At the St. Louis Youth and Family Center, Jamez Kinnard hands over plates packed with waffles, eggs, bacon and oranges to more than 30 children.

After just a couple of weeks of serving breakfast, he’s able to point out the kids who prefer blueberry waffles, the ones with dairy restrictions and the ones who only want fruit on their plate.

“We all deserve, at least, a good breakfast,” Kinnard said. “Food is not a privilege and definitely shouldn’t be treated as such.”

Open five days a week, the Free Breakfast Program is a new initiative to feed children in north St. Louis during the summer. The program aims to provide campers at the Youth and Family Center with access to hot and healthy meals.

Three years ago, Jeneisha Harris started the community organization in Nashville. She modeled the program after the 1970s Black Panther Party project with the same name. Harris consulted with original members of the party to replicate every detail.

“I really wanted to keep the essence of the program in its entirety, from the structure on down to the menu,” Harris said.

The original program began in 1969 at a church in West Oakland, California. The Black Panthers established kitchens across the country and fed tens of thousands of children before ending the program in the late ‘70s.

Today, Harris oversees kitchens in two locations, Nashville and St. Louis. Between the two cities, Harris estimates the program serves around 175 children a day.

“If you come to the location in St. Louis or Nashville, you can just feel from the atmosphere and the people that it’s so community-rooted,” Harris said. “We don’t have fancy facilities. We don’t have fancy kitchens. It’s real, true grassroots community work.”

The community aspect is what first attracted Kinnard to the organization. He serves as the St. Louis volunteer lead for the program — recruiting volunteers and raising donations.

“I think until we get to a point where Black people have the same resources, the same access and the same fair chance at a normal life, carrying out the work of the original Black Panthers will be at the epicenter of my passion,” Kinnard said.

The funds for the breakfast food come directly from members of the community. Each dollar goes into getting as many groceries for the program as possible, Harris said.

“We never tell children ‘no’. Whatever they need, we give it to them. If they want seconds or thirds, they get them,” she said.

Harris hopes each meal has a lasting impact on the child it feeds — the same way she feels the original program did on the generation it served.

“I truly believe that 15, 40 years from now, the kids will remember this work of just feeding children,” Harris said. “And that’s the kind of legacy I want to leave.”

Follow Kendall on Twitter: @kcrawfish33

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