By Janita Hendricks
Frederick Douglas once said, “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” and for Jeneisha Harris, it’s important that her actions align with these iconic words.
For the third summer in a row, Harris has successfully implemented the Free Breakfast program, a program that was originally created by the Black Panthers. “The Black Panther Party created a community, a world, without assistance from local, state, and federal government. Where policing, food assistance, healthcare, and many other issues were taken care of by and for the community, I’ve studied and implemented their exact blueprint mostly,” Harris continued, “they would partner with churches because most of them would already have kitchens and children. All they had to bring was the food to eat, hands to cook, and love to spread. This is the organizing model I’ve used by partnering with Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in North Nashville.”
During this summer-long program, 100+ hot plates are made every morning during the week. Studies have shown that when children have a hot meal in the morning they are more attentive, alert, and active, “I implemented a few items from the original menu that The Black Panther party created and added a few items that the children requested: waffles, pancakes, eggs, toast, hash browns, bacon or Turkey bacon, fresh oranges, grapes, watermelon, and strawberries – the fruit options vary by day. I also provide a vegetarian option substituting the bacon for veggie sausage. The kids enjoy the food so much.”
The children love more than just the food – if you follow the Free Breakfast Program on Instagram, you will see the impact of this program goes far beyond breakfast being served.
There’s an obvious mutual love and appreciation between Harris, volunteers, and the children who Harris affectionately refers to as, the babies. When asked about her choice of words, she said simply, “I have always loved children. The babies at my program are so sweet, warm, and full of energy! I refer to them as the babies because they are just that. I see them as gentle and small. I don’t have it all together but they trust me with not only their food but their lives. This responsibility is a huge one, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”
This is also a testament to how Harris feels about centering her work around building and strengthening the community. She went on to explain, “Community building, for me, is being on the ground. Oftentimes we have opinions and even implement programs around people we know nothing about, simply because we don’t meet them where they are. We don’t go to them. Instead, we host repetitive zoom calls and pointless events about the community without even asking them. Community building is having boots on the ground, being on the ground, and coming directly to the people. You truly are not doing the work if people in the hood don’t know you or the work you claim to put in.”
Harris has recently expanded her program to St. Louis and partnered with the Youth and Family Center where 50+ children will also be served for the remainder of the summer. “My STL Volunteer Lead, Jamez Kinnard, is excited to maintain this location while I facilitate the Nashville location. Expansion is difficult. Especially when you’re a hands-on leader like myself. But expansion is so needed. The babies have to eat not only in Nashville but all across the country.” Said Harris.
For those who are interested in helping children thrive during the summer months, there are several ways to help, “Support can be given in the form of sharing FBP posts, volunteering, or donating food or monetary funds,” Harris explained. “I appreciate all of the support thus far. This would not be possible without the endless support of my family, friends, mentors, colleagues, and even strangers. Thank you.”
If the last year and a half has taught us anything, it’s surely that real, joint community efforts are vital in ensuring everyday resources are available to all. In just a blink of an eye, so many were left with dwindling savings, suffering businesses, unexpected funeral costs, a failed unemployment system and so much more. We can all have our hand in community building and continuing the legacies of those who have come before us. “I’d like to raise up the living members of the Original Black Panther Party and the ancestors that did this work before me. I am walking on streets they paved and basking in the freedom they were killed for, said Harris. “This program does not belong to me. I am simply continuing their work in these modern-day times. All honor, credit, and recognition goes to them.”
If you’d like to give to the Free Breakfast Program or volunteer in its remaining days of this month, please visit jeneishaharris.com/freebreakfastprogram for more information.