Like many community service projects and social good enterprises, Free Lunch ATX was born out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The program, which blends creativity, compassion, and community support, helps feed an unhoused community in Austin, Texas.
Founder and director of operations, Jazz Mills, was an event producer in 2020, and when that work came to a halt, she decided to use her free time to help those in need.
“I started by distributing homemade food from my car and developed a plan called ‘moon rocks,’” she told Good Good Good.
“I sold my popular Rice Krispie treats, with the profits going toward providing meals for the unhoused community. For every dozen ‘moon rocks’ sold, I prepared five meals, which I then delivered to buyers’ porches, considering the safety precautions during the pandemic.”
Well, in the past three years, things have evolved beyond snap, crackle, and pop.
Around that time, Mills teamed up with her friend, musician Carrie Fussell Bickley, to provide balanced meals, instead of snacks with low-nutritional value, to the folks living in Camp Esperanza, a makeshift homeless camp in Southeast Austin.
With the art and music scene rallying behind them in support, Mills and Fussell Bickley started sharing regular updates on social media. The initiative continued to expand, but once they realized the magnitude of food insecurity in Camp Esperanza, they shifted their focus to a different approach: creating a zine.
Using creativity to confront food insecurity
Free Lunch evolved into a quarterly magazine that now funds the distribution of daily meals to Austin’s homeless community.
“We wanted to avoid the common issues where programs suffer due to unreliable funding or premature expansion, followed by loss of funding. We also understood that maintaining trust within the unhoused community was crucial. Many have experienced broken promises from support systems due to funding issues,” Mills said.
“So, we sought a solution that would address both these challenges and allow us to leverage our creativity.”
Zines have long been a tool for creative activists to combine their interests in art, writing, and community organizing. For Mills and Fussell Bickley, this opportunity to create was no different.
Mills called up some other talented friends, including photographer Jade Skye Hammer, and partner organizations like The Other Ones Foundation, Our Shared Kitchen, Walking By Faith Prison Ministry, and ATX Free Fridge.
“With a background in music, we recognized the importance of presenting our mission in a fresh way to tackle a long-standing issue. Our zine was born from these discussions,” Mills said.
“It’s not just a fundraising tool; it’s a way to showcase Jade’s photography, feature local musicians, and even share recipes from local chefs. It serves as tangible proof of our work for our $10-a-month subscribers.”
Free Lunch is a business — not a nonprofit — but this, according to Mills, allows flexibility to move quickly to make the maximum impact.
“We hope to inspire the next generation to create profitable businesses that pay the bills, support their staff, and make a positive impact on their communities,” she added. “It’s something we’re incredibly proud of at Free Lunch.”
More than a magazine
Free Lunch doesn’t just offer, well, free lunch. Mills and her team have used their connections with other community organizations to launch other projects, including an edible garden, developed through a grant with the Texas Food and Wine Alliance.
While space constraints make it difficult to farm enough food for the entire camp, the group currently grows peaches, persimmons, and herbs — and shares seasonal gardening tips from another previous partner, Wild Heart Dirt.
Part of Mills’s interest in food stems from her background working for four years at Leroy and Lewis Barbecue, which led to connections with other major food icons in Austin that have evolved into regular in-kind donations.
These include establishments like Franklin Barbecue, which provides high-quality chopped beef, or OMG Squee, which shares donuts and pastries (which Mills calls “essential for boosting morale among Esperanza community residents”).
“These partnerships strengthen our ability to provide nutritious and delicious meals to those in need,” Mills said. “It’s incredible how Austin’s food scene and supportive community has rallied behind our cause, and we’re incredibly grateful for their ongoing support.”
Outside of large partnerships, many individual community members have responded to Free Lunch ATX as volunteers and contributors, too.
One way this happens is through weekly meal contributions to the ATX Free Fridge, where anyone in the community can drop off prepared meals, dried goods, and groceries, to maintain these community fridges.
Others may simply team up to prepare meals, support Free Lunch’s work by subscribing to the monthly zine, or help at regular distributions.
“The response to our work has been both heartwarming and complex. We’ve witnessed positive reactions, particularly from younger generations who find it easier to connect with our mission,because they see everyday people, like us, making a difference,” Mills said.
“We’re not affiliated with religious organizations or government bodies, and we don’t hold advanced degrees in this field. In fact, on paper, we might not seem qualified for the work we’re doing, and that relatability resonates with many young individuals.”
Above all, Free Lunch is a home for anyone who is open to making a difference in Austin — who understands the importance of centering dignity and integrity for the community they serve.
“It’s about offering choices that resonate with individuals. By offering such options, we acknowledge their preferences and make them feel seen,” Mills said. “This, in turn, boosts their confidence and mental well-being, which is a significant part of the journey for everyone.”
Free Lunch has a monthly meal calendar that is distributed in the community, including a wide variety of options that folks can choose from.
A recent calendar includes five different kinds of sandwiches, six various sides, 11 entree options, and 10 “entree sides,” along with tasty extras, like popsicles, donuts, and side salads, that rotate throughout the month.
The team is also working on building out diet plans for diabetic community members, a recipe book for folks transitioning into stable housing, and providing refreshments and snacks for other community gatherings outside of mealtimes.
“In essence, we recognize that even the smallest wins, like enjoying their favorite foods, can have a big impact on the lives of the residents in our community,” Mills said. “It's about more than just sustenance; it's about nourishing their spirits and fostering a sense of dignity and autonomy.”
Header courtesy of Jade Skye Hammer