Lunch, Dinner, and Beyond
Artsy magazine keeps Austin fed with fall concerts and restaurant friends
It's true what they say: There's no such thing as a free lunch. But if Austinites are smart about organizing their resources, there's plenty of food to go around.
This is the philosophy of Jazz Mills, a local musician and the founder of Free Lunch ATX. By selling a quarterly magazine and tying it to community partnerships, Free Lunch is able to reduce food insecurity around the Capital City, proving that simple scarcity is not the problem.
"I realized that we're lying. We say that there's not a budget, or that the resources don't exist," says Mills. "I've worked a million events in this town where we've spent $1,000 on cheese or $5,000 on velvet, and we told the opening band that there wasn't a budget. And we see the same thing in all areas of our life.... Typically when it comes to communities in need, those communities are receiving leftovers of leftovers of leftovers."
Free Lunch has several incoming resource streams, from magazine revenue, to personal donations, to surplus products from local farmers. One big stream is events, and three are coming up in the near future: a concert with local musician Caroline Rose on November 14, a 12-day partner restaurant fundraiser from December 1-12, and the organization's biggest annual event on December 16.
Rose has a deep connection with the magazine as one of the early adopters to work on the team; She still does contribute, but tour can get in the way. The beauty of the arts is, of course, that they can be used to support almost anything. This benefit concert at Radio/East — with fellow Austin artists Bruce — will raise funds for the organization.
"I think one of the most inspiring things about Free Lunch and what Jazz has created is that it's really a simple idea that's executed in a really vibrant, honest, sometimes even playful way," writes Caroline Rose to CultureMap in an email.
Photo courtesy of Free Lunch ATX
"I mean, it really started as friends getting together, making food and making art," they continue. "It really was that simple. It's obviously grown to have a much bigger place in the community but the heartbeat of Free Lunch remains the same. Helping people doesn't have to be rocket science — it can be fun, it can be a great job, and it can be meaningful all at the same time. Jazz always had this vision for Free Lunch. She's going to hate that I'm saying this but I wish there were a billion more people like her in the world."
The key word is "playful." Although Free Lunch has every right to inspire through dire rhetoric, the magazine is a pleasure to look at. It covers lots of ground from useful recipes and gardening tips; odd ads pulled from bygone publications; quirky editorial shoots; and full-page photos of residents at Camp Esperanza, the organization's main homeless benefactors. Thanks to some partner call-outs scattered among the pages, readers also have a road map to some of the city's more involved hospitality and music industry players.
"The tangible magazine [subscribers] get in the mail will be proof of what we said we would do with their money," says Mills. "We started it during the pandemic, so I think people were really desperate for some sort of like intimate connection between people. I think there was something really romantic about the fact that they were receiving something tangible in the mail and not just a newsletter or something."
Photo courtesy of Free Lunch ATX
Since sustainability as a business was Mills' goal from the beginning, the creatives that make Free Lunch are paid staff. It's not just providing food in community fridges and cookouts, but paychecks and a business model for solving socioeconomic problems through rewarding work. It's not a thank-you token for do-gooders. It's a product that subscribers, or "Lunch Monitors" want.
More in that vein: December's "12 Days of Free Lunch" gathers popular local business in food, beverages, and music that have pledged a certain portion of their sales on each day. The following fundraisers get Austinites out to their favorite spots and make various pledges:
- Friday, December 1, at Joanne’s Fine Foods
- Saturday, December 2, (separate events) at Burn Slow Emporium Pop-Up Flea Market and Hotel Vegas
- Sunday, December 3, at Bufalina
- Monday, December 4, at Black Star Coop
- Tuesday, December 5, at Allday Pizza
- Wednesday, December 6, at LeRoy and Lewis
- Thursday, December 7, (separate events) at Tweedy’s and Radio Coffee & Beer
- Friday, December 8, at Sugar Mama’s Bakeshop
- Saturday, December 9, via Zee’s Weiner Systems at LoLo’s
- Sunday, December 10, at Rockstar Bagels
- Monday, December 11, at Justine’s
- Tuesday, December 12, at Lou’s Barton Springs
Finally, Free Lunch's biggest event is "The Big Red," a spaghetti dinner and "secret show" where all guests will wear red. Carrie Fussell and the Texas Gentlemen will cover Patsy Cline, and Rattlesnake Milk will cover Johnny Cash. Tickets are $30 via Eventbrite.
As these events draw out fans — of artists, restaurants, and Free Lunch — the whole project gains value.
"That's the type of support you need if you're going to try and do anything in your life consistently," says Mills. "It's not just about us finding people who can support us; It's about people that are like, 'I love them.'"
See what Free Lunch is up to and subscribe (starting at $10) at freelunchatx.com.