Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation: United Bronx Parents and New York City’s First-Ever Citywide Free Summer Meals Program

Sunday, January 4, 2015: 12:10 PM
Conference Room C (Sheraton New York)
Lana Povitz, New York University
Until 1971, New York City children reliant on free school lunches faced the grim prospect of going hungry during summer months. When the Board of Education refused to use newly available federal funds to continue the free lunch program in July and August, parents from the grassroots organization United Bronx Parents deemed their decision intolerable and stepped in. They coordinated the City’s first-ever free summer meals program, providing high-quality lunches for needy youth ages three to twenty-one in all five boroughs. In this South Bronx community's robust response to precarity, we are presented with a case study of poor people (most of whom were Puerto Rican immigrant and African-American women with little formal education) discovering their political potential where they perceived the state falling short.

My presentation will consider their accomplishment in light of a changing discourse about what it meant to receive government assistance.  The little support there had been for Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty was well on the wane by 1971; meanwhile, the apocryphal image of the “welfare queen” was waxing full in the public imagination. At a moment when the media was increasingly targeting poor women of color, children as direct recipients of state aid remained sheltered from anti-poor and racist rhetoric, seen instead as innocent and blameless for their hunger and poverty. That food was the demand also mattered. Unlike health care, clothing, childcare, and culturally appropriate education, which New York City parents were simultaneously demanding during this time, the right of children not to go hungry was an issue that resonated deeply with politicians, the media, and other elites.