A call to feed the community
By Leta Harrison

Jade Hammer, a partner in a program called Free Lunch, prepares food packages to be distributed to people in temporary housing as part of the Esperanza Community in Austin, Texas.

“You can start where you are.” That phrase has become a personal credo for Jazz Mills, who created the Free Lunch program in the Esperanza Community, which serves houseless people in Austin, Texas.

Jazz, a former musician, had no prior experience with this kind of community work. But when she lost her job amid the COVID-19 pandemic, she saw a need and decided to help meet it. Her philanthropy has turned into a demanding job.

In November 2019, Texas officials cracked down on houseless people in the state. The Austin Police Department was directed to enforce a 72-hour eviction notice for anyone living on the street. That forced hundreds of people to find alternative living spaces and resources.

The state designated what is now known as the Esperanza Community as a legal place for encampment, and evicted people began moving there.

Prior to the evictions, many Esperanza Community residents were living under the 7th Street Bridge in downtown Austin, where Jazz was providing meals.

“I had to work to build their trust and I started going down to 7th Street once a week,” she said. “Then once turned into seven days a week, especially when the winter storm hit.”

As a result, Jazz recruited and hired friends, including Jade Hammer and Chelsie Kern, to assist with cooking, packaging and distributing food.

The Other One’s Foundation, which had been providing food to the community, knew it needed help. So it partnered with Free Lunch, where Jazz has emphasized organization and consistency.

The Other One’s Foundation has plans to build housing, a community center, bathrooms and other facilities at the Esperanza Community. Jazz hopes to eventually have a commercial kitchen there so she will no longer have to cook all the food in her own home.

Jazz, a musician who had worked in event planning but was laid off during the pandemic, had no experience in nonprofit social service work before starting Free Lunch. But she saw a need in her community and figured, "You start where you are."

Jade packs her car with meals that will be taken to people being housed temporarily in hotels

Jade and Jazz visit the main hub for the Esperanza Community to make special delivery to a resident.

Jazz prepares Free Lunch meals in her kitchen at home.

Chelsie Kern (left) serves dinner in the Esperanza Community. The most-requested food is Frito Pie. What is the pie's secret ingredient? "Love," replies the man at right, who didn't want to be identified by name.

Jazz packs her car with food for residents who have been placed temporarily in hotels in various parts of Austin.

Jazz prepares some of the meals in her home. She is in transition to finding an off-site kitchen that would allow her to continue to store and prepare food for the Esperanza Community.