Black History Maker in Health: Ples Montgomery

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7 mins read
Photos courtesy of The Oak Cliff Veggie Project

By Steven Monacelli

In 1970, the Dallas Black Panthers had just gotten their charter to become an official chapter of the Black Panther Party. Prior to becoming an official chapter, several of the founding members had operated in the 1960s under the banners of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and later the National Committee to Combat Fascism. During that time, they had set up free breakfast programs in two locations in South and West Dallas as a part of what they called community survival programs — essential mutual-aid efforts to help impoverished Black folks make ends meet during a time of great racism and inequity.

Although the Dallas branch of the Black Panthers would collapse shortly after its founding due to increased attention from the authorities due to the illegal COINTELPRO program and disagreements with national leadership over ideological differences, their food justice efforts did not end. After the shakeup in 1970, several members reformed under a new banner, the Black Intercommunal Party, and continued their free food program at a housing complex in Denton.

Photos courtesy of The Oak Cliff Veggie Project

Black hunger was a bleak reality during the 60s and 70s in America. A significantly under-resourced National School Lunch Program and widespread poverty left many Black youth underfed. The Black Panther free breakfast programs were a direct response to these troubling realities. They were also inspired in part by the research of nutritionist Adelle Davis which showed that eating breakfast in the morning improves students’ academic performance and thus put food-insecure Black children at further disadvantage.

The conclusions of such research have been expanded upon in the decades since. A 2019 article by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that food insecurity leads to “adverse social, physical, and psychological outcomes.” That article goes on to say that, between 2001 and 2016, Black and Latinx households were at least twice as likely to experience food insecurity than non-Hispanic white households. It concluded that “discrimination and structural racism are key contributors to inequity in health behaviors and outcomes.”

Despite decades of social policy reform aimed to address racial inequality, such as free breakfast and lunch programs for all students at Dallas public schools that started in 2013, these problems still persist. At least 25% of children in Dallas under 18 face food insecurity, across the state, Black children face food insecurity at twice the rate of White children.

Photos courtesy of The Oak Cliff Veggie Project

Food insecurity is not just a matter of not having enough food. It’s also a problem of lack of access to quality and healthy foods. It’s a known issue that predominantly Black communities in Dallas face what contemporary activists call Food Aparthied — a systemic lack of access to healthy foods that is due to the persistent legacy of structural racism. This term builds on what previously were referred to as “food deserts” and reframes the issue as one of persistent systemic racism instead of making it seem like a natural phenomenon that just so happens to disproportionately impact Black people.

Photos courtesy of The Oak Cliff Veggie Project

This is an issue that is the focus of the work done by the Oak Cliff Veggie Project, a nonprofit organization that seeks to make the Oak Cliff community healthier and more self-reliant through nutrition and gardening. Ples Montgomery, president of the Oak Cliff Veggie Project, founded the nonprofit with his mother in Bettie in 2016 initially as a free produce distribution program. Over the years, the organization has grown steadily while maintaining a laser focus on the issue of food aparthied in Dallas. These days, the Oak Cliff Veggie Project operates a number of community gardens and holds regular food drives and fundraisers. Montgomery has also lent his support toward a proposed community grocery store in Highland Hills, aiming to fill a much needed gap in a predominantly Black neighborhood that has long lacked a grocery story.

The Oak Cliff Veggie Project is certainly not alone in their efforts to address food aparthied in Dallas.  They’ve partnered with other groups like 4DWN Skatepark to open a community food pantry and the Skip Shockley Foundation to launch a community garden. Montgomery says their efforts are informed by the groundwork laid by groups like the Detroit Black Food Security Network and inspired by the legacy of the Black Panther Party’s food programs and promotion of community self determination. That connection is perhaps best represented by their work with the Skip Shockley Foundation, a nonprofit founded by the family of the late Skip Shockley, a founding Dallas Black Panther.

Although the Black Panther Party may no longer exist in the way it once did in Dallas, many of the issues they sought to address still do. And as long as a systemic lack of investment keeps Black families without enough to eat, the spirit of their food justice programs will live on through groups like the Oak Cliff Veggie Project. 

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Steven Monacelli is an independent investigative journalist based in Dallas. He has been contributing to Dallas Weekly since 2021. He is also the publisher of Protean Magazine, a nonprofit literary publication.

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