Austin Bicycle Meals Offers Pedal-Powered Distribution to the Streets
Meals on (two) wheels
When it's in the hundreds outside, a Popsicle can change your day.
It's a Saturday in early September, the last blast of summer, and a procession of bicycles rolls by a grassy median in Downtown Austin where a dozen folks are posted up in the shade of an oak. A woman of about 30, stylish and sweaty, clearly experiencing some degree of hardship, is walking toward the group venting loudly to no one in particular.
A man on a bike asks if anyone wants food and the cyclists all stop to hand out takeout boxes of rice with stir-fried vegetables and fruit cobbler, bottles of water, and Popsicles. There's no introduction, no religious spiel, no pretense – just, basically: "Do you want food? Here you go. You're welcome. Have a great day." It's casual.
And simple too. I suppose the most basic act of human compassion is this: giving food to a stranger who doesn't have any.
Except it's on bikes.
And something as simple as a Popsicle on a hot day can instantly improve your mood. I know this because that same person purporting to be stressed out is now happily licking a Popsicle.
"Seriously," she smiles. "I love y'all!"
Just about every week for the last 18 months, a small caravan of cyclists with cargo racks, baskets, and side-saddles packed with hot food, cold water, menstrual kits, dog food, flea collars, and even Narcan have rolled through East Austin and Downtown giving meals to any houseless, hungry, and hard-up individuals whose paths they cross. The food distribution effort, headed up by Austin residents Kelly Wourms and Claire Harbutt, is so DIY that it really falls in the category of neighbors helping neighbors. While it exists outside the many established services in Austin for people experiencing homelessness, it complements them by serving individuals who may not be utilizing food banks or those who stay in areas difficult to access by car.
Austin Bicycle Meals was born from a similar effort in Los Angeles' Koreatown, where Wourms, a self-described "bike freak" who works in film and television, previously lived. When the pandemic hit and work ceased, he went looking for ways to serve his community.
"I'd go to food banks and other volunteer operations and they seemed so well-staffed that I felt underutilized as a volunteer at some of the spaces," he recounts. "I was very plugged in to the bike scene in L.A. and I heard about this group started by a local in Koreatown called Bicycle Meals."
Wourms began riding with them, delivering sack lunches to struggling Angelenos one to three times a week. He kept it up for a year and a half, seeing the sustenance it gave his neighbors in need. So, when he moved to Austin in late 2021, he asked the L.A. Bicycle Meals organizer, Mike Pak, if he could start a meal distribution ride in Texas and received his blessing.
"I don't think he actually thought I was gonna follow through with it," Wourms says.
But he did. Wourms and his partner Harbutt began preparing and packing up sack lunches in their home, then delivering them alongside any volunteers they could recruit among their friends or Instagram followers. At first, their numbers were thin and all the food and supplies were coming out of pocket. It was meaningful work, but it was also becoming clear that, without a source for prepared food, Austin Bicycle Meals wasn't sustainable.
"I was getting to the end of my rope and we were only five or six months in. We had a volunteer who showed up and I was making a plea, like, 'I don't know if I can make it another week,' and they said, 'Oh, well I work with a group called Food Not Bombs in Austin and they're kinda having the opposite problem where they are able to make all this food, but could use help distributing.' We got connected with them and it instantly solved our problem of having a little too much on our plate … excuse the pun. So now we've been working with them for about a year."
Food Not Bombs is a leaderless volunteer movement that gives away vegetable-based meals prepared primarily with surplus produce. It was founded in 1980 by activists in Cambridge, Mass., with the radical notion that food is a human right. Today there are hundreds of independent chapters all over the world that typically serve meals in public parks or at encampments, but also on picket lines and places where people have been affected by natural disasters. Staples of Food Not Bombs meals are stir-fries, beans and rice, mashed potatoes, sautéed veggies, fruit-based desserts, and packaged food that's nearing its sell-by date.
"I love the DIY aspect of what we do with Austin Bicycle Meals. We don't have a sign-up sheet, we don't have a set route, we just sort of ride and help people and give them things," explains Wourms. "I like that we were able to partner with a group like Food Not Bombs that's very much in the same vein. All these volunteers meet up at a co-op and cook this food. It's a very homegrown operation, but with a quality product. We don't want to serve gruel – we want to give something that we would like to eat."
Over the past year, Austin Bicycle Meals has continued to hone their food delivery experience with assists from a growing community of supporters. Local bike shops Cycleast and Eastside Pedal Pushers have given them space for the volunteers to meet and load up, companies have supplied products (Desnudo Coffee provides coolers full of cold brew), and like-minded free food distributor Our Shared Kitchen has begun setting them up with meals for an additional ride that takes place every other Wednesday. The nonprofit Keep Austin Neighborly has both helped market their efforts to potential volunteers and given them the framework to take donations, which have been used to buy a cargo bike that can hold an astonishing amount of Styrofoam food containers.
Of course, Austin Bicycle Meals' most powerful asset is its volunteers. Wourms says the ride now has a steady roster of regular helpers, usually between five and 10 per night.
"I'm always trying to tell people how easy this is," he says. "Everything is ready when you get there – you just have to put it on your bike and go. All you need is barely any skill on a bike, compassion, and the desire to help others. I'm just happy that people are interested and we're able to continue doing this with no signs of stopping."
When I volunteered, with an old metal crate bungeed to the rear rack of my bike, I marveled as volunteers loaded up dozens and dozens of to-go boxes onto their bikes, thinking about how long it would take to give out all that food. But the ride began on East Cesar Chavez, and by the time Harbutt was petting puppies under the I-35 overpass, all the food had been distributed.
Witnessing the scores of Austinites on the street, facing daily food insecurity, can be unsettling.
"Sometimes, after a ride, Claire and I just lay around staring at the ceiling, processing what we just saw," Wourms admits.
But there's also a great deal of warmth reflecting back at you when you go out of your way to help others. Outside the Terrazas Branch of the Austin Public Library, a meal recipient won't let the group ride off before giving them a blessing: "We need more people like y'all out here."
Austin Bicycle Meals’ distribution rides start every Saturday, 4:30pm, at Cycleast (1619 E. Cesar Chavez) and every other Wednesday, 5:30pm, at Eastside Pedal Pushers (4607-B Bolm).