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Austin musicians create Free Lunch to feed homeless people

Matthew Odam
Austin 360
Carla James picks up her portions of corn chips and chili served by Jazz Mills, from left, Caroline Rose and Carrie Fussell Bickley on Dec. 21 at the Esperanza Community in Southeast Austin. The founders of Free Lunch hope to be able to continue to increase the number of meals they are able to serve to the community.

Jazz Mills for years prepared a significant amount of extra food when she'd cook at home for her and her daughter. She would box the leftovers and distribute them to people experiencing homelessness.

The Austin musician and event planner also hosted holiday parties at her house and collected food and clothing that she would deliver from the back of her car. 

More:Austin church's Christmas wish: Spreading love for homeless

When the coronavirus pandemic ended live music and events, Mills lost her main sources of income. But in the tumult, the lifelong social justice crusader found the opportunity to think about how she could effect change in her community. She transformed her passion into her work. 

Mills, who has plated meals and worked the service window at the LeRoy & Lewis barbecue operation in South Austin for three years, decided the best path to helping her community was the most direct one. She and her friend and fellow musician Carrie Fussell Bickley, who both earned food manager certification through the Texas Department of State Health Services, turned their small home kitchens into around-the-clock production facilities in the spring, preparing healthful meals in compostable packaging that they started hand-delivering to the Esperanza Community, the state-created campsite off of U.S. 183 near Montopolis Drive established in November 2019 for people experiencing homelessness. 

Jazz Mills (foreground), Carrie Fussell Bickley and Caroline Rose serve corn chips and chili to Eve Caballero at the temporary campsite for people experiencing homelessness at the Esperanza Community in Southeast Austin.

Mills dubbed the nascent operation Free Lunch, and she and Fussell Bickley initially paid for everything with their own money. Mills sold Rice Krispie treats by the dozen as a half-baked fundraising idea, telling people that if they bought a dozen confections from her, she would deliver five meals to the camp she discovered through a friend.  

Realizing that people were giving money more out of love for their fellow humans than their love of sweets, and seeing the positive response from the underserved community at the camp, the San Angelo native used her social media channels and tapped into her vast network in the Austin creative community to solicit monthly $10 contributions to fund her new business (freelunchatx.com). 

In an effort to make the business an inclusive enterprise for the contributors, whom they’ve labeled Lunch Monitors, and give them something tangible, Mills and Fussell Bickley brought on their photographer friend Jade Skye Hammer to help create a quarterly zine. The eponymous zine, the first issue of which will be distributed in late December, includes features on members of the community at Esperanza and gives them a chance to tell their stories or contribute poetry and art. The zine, the DIY group’s creative take on a newsletter with progress reports, photos and updates from the ground, also includes recipes of dishes served at the camp. 

Jazz Mills and Carrie Fussell Bickley started Free Lunch in the spring as a way to directly feed people experiencing homelessness.

Within a month, 100 Lunch Monitors were helping finance the business that initially delivered meals every Saturday evening to the campsite overseen by the nonprofit organization the Other Ones Foundation. Free Lunch’s contributor ranks grew to 300 people by September, and the organizers added Sunday dinner service. Free Lunch now serves about 500 dinners from Friday to Tuesday nights, and Mills hopes to be serving nightly by February. She aspires to have 1,000 Lunch Monitors on board by this time next year, which will allow the business to add daytime meals. 

“I really want people my age and people younger than me to realize they can really enact really profound change,” said Mills, a 34-year-old mother of a 9-year-old girl. “You can make really beautiful things happen in your community in other ways, not just by voting. By taking baby steps and making something happen.”

Mills has commandeered much of her home to prep work and packaging (“It’s a mess … I’ve ruined my house”) and credits Fussell Bickley as the main culinary talent. The nutritious meals, often prepared with donated produce, contained refreshing fruit salad and lighter fare in the sweltering summer months and have shifted with the cold weather to a more hearty roster of dishes that include pasta primavera, vegetarian Frito pie, rice and beans, and other comfort food. The meals' compostable packaging cuts down on waste and litter that Mills says is often the byproduct of other meal assistance programs. 

Mills identifies her mother as an early inspiration for wanting to give back and build community and says she always had the goal of dedicating herself to service. 

“I always felt very supported and thought the world was this very safe place full of all of this love and all of this community, and I realized it’s because my mom always fostered that for me,” Mills said. “Through her dedication to the community, they really rallied for her. I think growing up with all of that — and also white privilege is very much a real thing — made me feel responsible and wanting to share and give back. I have a lot of love in my life, and I realize not everybody does, and I want that for everybody.”

Jazz Mills of Free Lunch prepares to serve dinner to people experiencing homelessness at the Esperanza Community in Southeast Austin.

Her time at Esperanza, where she has formed (socially distanced) friendships with many of the residents, has reinforced for Mills her frustration with some of the public’s perception of that community. If someone hasn’t personally worked with that population, Mills doesn’t believe they can have any true understanding of their lives. 

“When people say they want to get these people off the streets, just where do you think they’re going to go? They would love to be in affordable housing, but affordable housing doesn’t exist for them. I have friends that work three jobs that can barely pay the rent,” Mills said. “It’s kind of like systemic racism — there are so many flaws in the system as to how we help those in need in our community.” 

Mills considers bureaucracy part of the problem in getting people the assistance they need. Anything that is not directly helping the immediate delivery of aid is unnecessarily slowing it down. 

It’s part of the reason she has so far decided to operate Free Lunch as a business, not a nonprofit organization. Any time she would spend writing grants, schmoozing potential donors and creating reciprocal sponsor relationships for a nonprofit that would then hire people to manage volunteers would be time that she says she could otherwise use to prepare and deliver meals. 

“When it comes to taking care of vulnerable people in our community, there is no time to do that stuff anymore. People are dying in real time. And that’s not a joke. And it’s not an overstatement,” Mills said. “In a city of absolute abundance, our citizens are dying because it’s too hot or there’s not enough nutrition in their bodies. That’s embarrassing. We should be doing a better job.”

Running Free Lunch as a business also allows Mills to benefit not just those receiving the food but also those who are creating it. Free Lunch pays a salary to Fussell Bickley and Hammer, and Mills hopes to be able to take a salary next year, which would allow her to focus all of her time on Free Lunch. 

Caroline Rose, from left, Carrie Fussell Bickley and Jazz Mills serve corn chips and chili to Bobby Linder on Dec. 21 at a temporary campsite for people experiencing homelessness. Free Lunch is a business created during the pandemic to feed people in need.

"What I want Free Lunch to be, ideally, is I want people to see you can run a business with integrity and you can create jobs. Every time it grows, we are massively increasing meal output,” Mills said. "This, in my mind, is what an ideal business should look like. You don't have to have a nonprofit to support the homeless."

Mills, who says she has little faith in the government coming up with solutions to help the city’s at-risk populations, wants to expand Free Lunch’s operation to include meal delivery at other sites eventually. 

“Regardless of people’s faith in the government and the likelihood of them righting these systematic wrongs, we as the public need to move forward because we are just capable as the government can/should be,“ Mills said. “Do I think Free Lunch is going to solve the food insecurity problem in Austin? No. But I think we stand a large dent in that problem, and that makes me so excited.”

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