How a Food Zine Helps Feed an Unhoused Community

Networks around the country are finding creative ways to fight food insecurity.

When the pandemic hit, Jazz Mills was like most of us: stuck at home. Unlike the rest of us, the Austin musician, events producer, and mother to a 9-year-old couldn’t stay put and do nothing. She coped by making large amounts of food and passing them out to folks experiencing homelessness.

It was small at first. Batches of Rice Krispies treats. Sandwiches. Things that were easy and scalable. She was quickly joined by fellow musician Carrie Fussell Bickley, and they both earned food manager certifications and turned their small home kitchens into legit production facilities. And Free Lunch was born.

They started out serving meals to unhoused folks in the community just two or three days a week in May of 2020. “And by the time the winter storm hit Texas in February 2021, we were like, if there’s ever a time for us to go every day, it’s this week, Mills says.” And they have ever since, handing out tens of thousands of meals to Camp Esperanza, a sanctioned homeless encampment with about 150 residents. In the Austin area, 2,500 people experience homelessness on any given night.

From New York City to Seattle to Dallas, like-minded collectives have been running meal programs when the pandemic laid bare the ways so many people are suffering. Fig NYC likewise launched in 2020 in response to emergency food relief. Food Not Bombs DTX is the Dallas-area chapter of Food Not Bombs’ long-running network that now spans all over the globe.

Free Lunch dinner service
Free Lunch dinner service | Photo by Jade Skye Hammer

“I feel like I got hit by lightning,” Mills says about keeping Free Lunch running, “because what happens if we just stop?” They needed funding. They needed to keep doing this work.

Jade Skye Hammer, a photographer by trade who Mills knew from the music scene, went over to Mill’s home one day. They sat on the porch and, after four hours of chatting and scheming, had landed on the solution: “Oh my God, we should just publish a magazine.”

Subscribers, a.k.a. Lunch Monitors, pay $10 per month, which helps provide healthy meals seven days a week. Each quarter, a new issue of Free Lunch lands in their mailbox. “A magazine would be like the old-school version of a newsletter,” Mills quips. She much prefers something tangible than something that fills up your email inbox.

The third issue was a cookbook. Others have horoscopes. There are always plenty of photographs and updates about the camp. James Robin, a former Camp Esperanza resident, is featured in the latest issue. He’s since moved out and landed a job at an Austin-based humanitarian nonprofit. But, mostly, the zine is a fun visual ride that expresses the joy of being human.

Volunteer Caroline Rose and cofounder of Free Lunch, Jazz Mills | Photo by Jade Skye Hammer

“Creativity is our golden goose,” Mills says. The whole Free Lunch staff is full of creatives—musicians, writers, photographers, a BMX rider. Without romance, without something tangible—a zine with beautiful photography and stories written by music journalists with no shows to cover—to pull people in, she’s not sure Free Lunch would be what it is today.

“I’m so mad and tired of seeing this. There’s outrage, there’s compassion, there’s this deep sadness around people suffering but also joy,” she says.

They’ve come a long way from marshmallow snacks—though they still make the occasional appearance. Mills and company have since partnered with local chefs and farms, and have a dedicated edible garden from which they source high-quality ingredients for meals. Some people at the camp have diabetes or food allergies or are vegetarian. Just because the meal is free doesn’t mean it can’t be nutritious. Last year alone, they served 75,000 meals.

free lunch
Photo by Jade Skye Hammer

There are challenges, too, of course. “There are all kinds of things that I don’t like about the job…things that make me sad, things that overwhelm me, things that gross me out, things that push me to limits,” Mills fully admits. She was invited to stay at the camp and she did, once in summer and again in the winter. “It showed me how much I still don’t know and don’t understand.”

We all have some capacity to help, big or small, Mills thinks. “In the fall, we’re gonna launch a volunteer program…inviting people over and feeding them and answering every possible question they might have about how to get involved,” she says. They were just musicians in a pandemic without anywhere to perform one day. The next: feeding thousands of their neighbors.

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Rosin Saez is the senior editor of Food & Drink at Thrillist.