As the purple, green and beige bus rolled into the Booker T. Washington Terraces in East Austin around lunchtime Friday, the driver blared out through a speaker: “We got food! We got food! Don’t be afraid, this is our new bus!”
A few minutes later, a group of three curious high school girls walked onto the parking lot. “Is that the food lady?” they asked each other.
It indeed was the “food lady,” Lola Stephens-Bell, known affectionately to the scores of people she hands out free food to as “Miss Lola.” She drove a new bus she had just been given by Tyson Foods as recognition for her efforts fighting hunger in the Austin area.
Stephens-Bell, who closes her Nubian Queen Lola’s Cajun Soul Food restaurant four times a week to feed the hungry, was the first person in the country to be recognized in Tyson’s new five-year initiative to invest $50 million over the next five years to people committed to fighting hunger.
“One hot meal really can make a difference,” said Charlie Solomon, a Tyson executive who spoke Friday at an event in her honor at the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex in East Austin. “With one hot meal at a time, Lola makes a difference in every life she touches.”
As part of the recognition, Stephens-Bell was given a new bus to make her deliveries and a yearly supply of chicken products that will be delivered to her restaurant twice a week so she can continue feeding the hungry.
“Glory be to God!” she yelled, after climbing aboard the bus for the first time, following the ceremony.
Stephens-Bell is a beloved figure in East Austin who has provided free food to the less fortunate and hungry for 12 years, even while her restaurant has struggled. Once homeless herself, she knows how difficult going hungry can be and still fasts to remind herself of the feeling, she said.
Council Member Ora Houston, who spoke at the event, called her an East Austin icon and an “unsung heroine of the community.”
“What the world needs now is love, love, love,” Houston told the crowd. “That’s what Miss Lola brought here after she moved here from New Orleans. … Here’s your heroine. She knew what needed to be done and took action.”
Feeding the hungry, Stephens-Bell believes, is her ministry. When she visits low-income projects to hand out free food, she blares out her presence from a speaker in her van, and often quotes scripture and tells people how much God loves them.
Arnesha Johnson, a 17-year-old resident of Booker T. Washington Terraces who stopped by the van Friday, said Stephens-Bell’s visits help build community in the area.
That seems to make Stephens-Bell happy, and she hopes to expand her reach to such cities as Bastrop, Manor and Elgin with her new van. Even after her free chicken supply from Tyson runs out near the end of the year, she doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon.
“I’ll keep doing the work of God every day of my life,” she said. “Every child shall be fed.”