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It’s Tuesday, and rows upon rows of meals glisten on a plastic folding table in Southeast Austin. Cornbread and steaming lentils sit, lovingly arranged in biodegradable bowls. On the other side of the table, crisp vegetables are lovingly scooped onto plates. Strangers dine together and smile under the winter sun. Behind the operation is Free Lunch, an organization that committed to working within the community to combat food insecurity for those in need.

“Free Lunch’s mission is to provide nutritious, healthy meals to people experiencing homelessness, specifically at the Esperanza community,” says Julia, a college counsellor by day and corn muffin supplier for Free Lunch by night.

“A good meal is one of those things that can instantly make you feel at home.” She says, smiling. Julia’s cooking and baking hobbies quickly transformed into a means of community engagement during the early days of the pandemic. What started as a personal pastime quickly turned into trays of cornbread, lasagna, and casseroles.

“I’m part of one group called the Oven Mitt Movement. What we started doing was baking – because everyone was making bread or banana bread or whatever – and were like, ‘okay, let’s figure out how we can use this very therapeutic, and like, loving exercise to support people without housing.’” Most recently, Julia mobilized her students, facilitating a ‘Bake Off’ and weekly muffin drive to supply Free Lunch with 120 batches of corn muffins. “Some weeks, students make a bunch of them, and many weeks, I make 8 dozen corn muffins,” Julia laughs, “So I’ve gotten really good at corn muffins!”

Beyond providing meals, Free Lunch is starting necessary conversations about food insecurity, homelessness, and the language we use to describe the challenges our neighbors face.

“I use the term ‘unhoused’ [instead of homeless] because I think that says directly what people need. And I think ‘homeless’ sounds like they’re lacking something more personal or ephemeral – a sense of home. But they have a home! They’re our neighbors! Their home is Austin! What they are lacking is housing.” Julia says, “Not only is there a global pandemic, but there is a huge economic impact to this pandemic and it has both forced a lot of interstate migration and it’s also made a lot of people housing insecure. That tied with the end of the camping band means we can actually see unhoused people in our community. They used to be pushed out of the city, but now we can see people. Now, [Free Lunch] is making 4 meals a week for 125 people.” Julia says, “It’s a huge deal.”

Free Lunch has been supplying food to the Esperanza community, located in Southeast Austin. With a baseline donation of $10 per month, about the price of a streaming service’s subscription, donors can supply 3 healthy meals and receive the organization’s quarterly magazine.

As for their volunteers? “There are no volunteers.” Says Jazz Mills, one of the program’s three managers. Over the phone, she explains that free lunch isn’t actually a volunteer organization, but a small business with paid employees supported in large part by their magazine and donors. Many of the Free Lunch-ers came from creative disciplines before shifting to community organizing, and the magazine was a natural outgrowth from these experiences. “that’s our background,” Mills says.

Mills stresses the importance of giving back sustainably. With revenue generated from the magazine’s subscribers, Free Lunch can compensate those within the organization for their valuable time and energy. Looking towards the future, Free Lunch hopes to move into the community kitchen at Camp Esperanza built by the Other Ones Foundation, an advocacy group working with unhoused members of the Austin community and a fiscal sponsor for Free Lunch.

The recent winter weather event has been devastating for unhoused people in Austin, but Mills wants people to remember that life is hard out on the streets even without freezing temperatures. “It’s a black and white issue” Mills says, “Think about how you feel when you go without food for a few hours.” She hopes Austinites will continue to extend their empathy to those facing the unimaginable difficulties of homelessness and food insecurity beyond the recent crisis. Mills describes the lengths unhoused people must often travel to obtain food, and the difficulty of moving personal belongings from place to place. All of this, in combination with illnesses like diabetes, dental problems, and a lack of access to mental healthcare, make food insecurity something incredibly insidious and difficult to escape. Providing meals to people who need them is imminently necessary, and masterfully executed by Free Lunch and its donors week after week.

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch” may be a ubiquitous saying, especially in our Texan vernacular, but on this Tuesday evening, with a spread of food sourced from Austinites it seems especially out of touch. “Food is how we show love,” says Julia. Along with the other supporters, donors, and employees of Free Lunch, she’s committed to proving that food security can be a reality for the unhoused in the Austin area. Free Lunch asks us a simple question: are we willing to show love to our unhoused neighbors?

You can visit Free Lunch ATX, at their website, https://freelunchatx.com/. to learn more, donate, and subscribe to the magazine. To see the work Free Lunch does in the Austin community, you can follow the organization @freelunch on Instagram or @FREELUNCH.ATX on Facebook.

If you or a loved one needs assistance finding hot meals, groceries, or kids’ meals, please visit
https://www.centraltexasfoodbank.org/food-assistance/get-food-now for a list of locations where food is available in Central Texas, or call (512) 282-2111.

–  Craig Scully-Clemmons, Youth Spin

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