Feeding empty stomachs in Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah”

The Homo Scientificus blog looks at the ways Science and Culture intersect in everyday life.


People unfamiliar with the story of the Black Panther Party in its initial incarnation only know the group through their iconography. Those who possess a bit of knowledge about the Panthers also know that the organization was much more than a bunch of sharply dressed gun-toting insurgents. They had direction, a strategy, and the discipline to execute their plans. They also had charismatic leaders, locally and nationally, to lead the charge. One of them is the subject of the new movie currently in theaters and streaming on HBO Max, Judas and the Black Messiah.

Director and producer Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah chronicles the Black Panther, Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya), and the FBI campaign to delegitimize and ultimately destroy the Black Panther Party. In this case, J. Edgar Hoover’s men are targeting the head of the Illinois Chapter of the BPP, led by Hampton. The government has placed one of their assets, an agent provocateur named William O’Neal (played by Lakeith Stanfield), in the organization, one that ascends the ranks to become Hampton’s personal driver. Over the course of the film, the mole feeds information to his handler. The news that Hampton is seeking to unite rival groups under the umbrella of the BPP concerns the FBI and they increase their pressure on the organization. It comes to a head during a deadly nighttime raid in Hampton’s residence.

For the first fifteen minutes of the film, Judas and the Black Messiah essentially offers a cheat-sheet for some of the BPP’s core tenets. The fiery speeches. The ideological clashes with cultural nationalist organizations like Ron Karenga and Hakim Jamal’s US Organization. The Maoist influences. The emphasis on education as part of a revolutionary’s training. One of the organization’s most famous programs, the Free Breakfast Program, is featured first through words when Fred Hampton mentions it to a pedestrian while handing out fliers. A visual of children eating in a cafeteria soon follows.

The program is also mentioned during the tense scene where the Panthers visit the Crowns’ headquarters in the hopes of convincing them to unite with the rival BPP. (NOTE: The Crowns are a fictional organization meant to function as a composite of actual groups integrated into Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition.) It’s an important scene in that it links the BPP’s stated goal— “dedicated to the liberation of oppressed people all over the world” — with one of their strategies for achieving their desired ends. “Our breakfast program feeds over 3000 kids a week,” says Hampton. It elicits the retort that the Crowns “feed more kids than General Mills.“ 

To their credit, the Black Panthers inherently understood that revolutions weren’t won solely with guns (no matter how much they fetishized reciting Chaiman Mao’s saying that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun). Children were the teachers, activists, and soldiers of tomorrow. If they were not properly cared for, including healthy meals and a proper education, and protected from the thorns of racism, all the guns in the world meant little. They also designed their strategies with the science of the time which was beginning to correlate diet with education. A common expression — “It’s hard to learn on an empty stomach” — sums up the logic succinctly. 

Children are particularly vulnerable to the damaging effects of racism. A recently published policy paper published by the American Academy of Pediatrics describes the correlation between racism and a child’s health in no uncertain terms. 


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The paper stresses that “Racism is a core social determinant of health that is a driver of health inequities.” The inequities are not the result of individual behavior choices or genetic predisposition but are caused by economic, political, and social conditions, including racism. Children experience the outputs of structural racism through place (where they live), education (where they learn), economic means (what they have), and legal means (how their rights are executed).

The impact of racism has been linked to birth disparities and mental health problems in children and adolescents. The biological mechanism that emerges from chronic stress leads to increased and prolonged levels of exposure to stress hormones and oxidative stress at the cellular level. Prolonged exposure to stress hormones, such as cortisol, leads to inflammatory reactions that predispose individuals to chronic disease.

One of the ways the Panthers protected children from institutional racism was through their Free Breakfast Program. It was originally coordinated by Ruth Beckford, an Afro-Haitian dance teacher. It was so popular that it spread to all BPP chapters nationwide. It became a core initiative of the party’s Survival Programs. By the end of 1969, over 20,000 children had been fed. The program’s success underscored the inadequacies of the federal government’s lunch programs in public schools across the country.

A former Panther described the program to the Guardian, 

Billy X Jennings, a former Panther who now serves as the party’s archivist, worked at the original breakfast program at St Augustine’s. “Every office was required to send two people to learn how it ran so you can open one in your area,” he said. Jennings would work at St Augustine’s early in the morning before heading to class at Laney College. Soon after, the breakfast service expanded to 23 locations around Oakland.

The program addressed another significant obstacle facing children of color when faced with racism. Studies have shown that disparities in educational access and attainment, along with racism experienced in the educational setting, affect the trajectory of academic achievement for children and adolescents and ultimately impact health.

In dietary terms, the BPP’s Free Food Program ensured a basic level of nutritional stability for the kids it served, not to mention the greater health benefits. Children who regularly eat breakfast tend to have a lower BMI and are less likely to be overweight than those who eat breakfast less frequently. Studies in children suggest that breakfast eaters are more likely to meet daily nutrient intake guidelines compared with children who eat breakfast infrequently or skip breakfast.

Studies have shown that there are tangible benefits to be gained from feeding programs. A review done in the journal Nutritional Research Reviews surveyed over 30 years worth of studies that investigated the link between food programs and learning. They found that children who consumed a proper breakfast generally performed better at tasks associated with learning.

In science terms, eating a good breakfast provides fuel for preferential oxidation of glucose by the brain. In children aged between 3 and 11 years, the brain has been shown to consume more than 50 % of a child’s body oxygen. Children have a higher ratio of brain weight to liver weight (1·4–1·6 v. 0·73 in adults) and a 50 % greater metabolic rate per unit brain weight. Now, considering the fact that between the time a child has had their last meal — let’s assume dinner is served at 7pm — they’ll have gone at least 12 hours without replenishing the glucose they ingested during their last meal. Because of their greater metabolic rate, children exert greater demands on glycogen stores during overnight fasts which are often longer than in adults. This is why breakfast is considered so important for children.

For the most part, the studies bare this out:

The majority of these studies demonstrate positive effects of breakfast compared with no breakfast. However, effects vary over cognitive domain. Benefits of breakfast consumption were most evident on measures of memory and in terms of fewer errors on attention tasks especially later in the morning when performance decrements become apparent on the no-breakfast conditions. 

It’s worth noting that many of the studies which were inconclusive had questionable design.

Overall, the quality of studies was poor. Some studies were not counterbalanced or allocation to condition was not randomised. It was sometimes unclear whether testing was performed blind to treatment condition where possible. Socio-economic status, if specified and not deliberately selected for, was predominantly middle class and monetary incentives were provided to parents in a number of studies.

When studies took socuo-economic status into consideration, at-risk groups appeared to benefit the most from breakfast 

There are seven studies that examined the effects of providing breakfast to children of differing nutritional status (see Table 3). Four studies were performed in South America, two in Jamaica and one in India. These studies compared the effects of breakfast in well-nourished and stunted and/or wasted children or children considered nutritionally at risk. Nutritional status was classified on the basis of height for age (21 SD) and weight for age (20·5 SD) in four studies. These studies showed that cognitive performance was better following breakfast in the at-risk or undernourished group, with few if any effects on the well-nourished and not-at-risk control children. Lopez et al. reported more errors in stunted children irrespective of treatment.

Judas and the Black Messiah opens with a powerful scene where J. Edgar Hoover presents his case against the Black Panther Party and the civil rights movement, in general. Standing in front of a movie screen while powerful and manipulative images pounded negative images into his audience’s subconscious, he characterizes the BPP as being in a state of desperation. Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Eldridge Cleaver have all been neutralized one way or another, he argues. With the table set, Hoover introduces the American government’s latest bogeyman — the Black Messiah. The man who will unite the disenfranchised and propel them into a revolutionary future.

Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah captures the animosity and disdain the FBI held for the Panthers. Moreover, it offers a visceral portrayal of the damage agent provocateurs had on the organization. Eventually, people like William O’Neal played key roles in destroying the first iteration of the BPP. Leaving that aside, the Black Panther Party was clearly on to something when they established the Free Breakfast Program. If anything truly worried Hoover, the FBI, and the general American power structure, it was the grassroots effectiveness of the program in winning hearts and minds. In truth, the Black Messiah wasn’t any one person. It was a program designed to fill empty stomachs.

WORDS: Marc Landas


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