Meal boxes prepared by Bunny Hop PHL in December 2020

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Thousands of Philadelphians are losing access to free, fresh food this month because a popular mutual aid group was not able to find a new space in which to accept donations and assemble meal boxes.

Bunny Hop PHL, which each week delivers meal boxes to 350 Philly families and runs three public food distribution sites, will be on hiatus for at least a month, according to organizer Katie Briggs, and all its equipment will be moved into storage.

“We will have to stop all distributions,” Briggs said. “I’m telling everyone, ‘We’re not going to be here next week.’”

In Philadelphia, 21% of residents experience food insecurity. That rate is about 5% higher than it was a year ago, thanks in part to the pandemic-induced recession. In response, city government has been operating free meal sites for the last year — with more than 150 sites currently distributing meals each week. Other mutual aid groups have popped up too, including City Wide Mutual Aid and Homies Helping Homies in Point Breeze.

Over the past year, Bunny Hop’s database has grown to include details on hundreds of food-insecure Philadelphians, including contact info, dietary restrictions and religious considerations. Asked if one of the other grassroots nonprofits could take over while Bunny Hop is on hiatus, Briggs didn’t think so.

“We don’t know anyone who could do the volume that we do who could take it on,” they said. “We’ve looked for space but are going into storage until we figure it out.”

Bunny Hop had been using a Lansdowne warehouse left empty when charcuterie company 1732 Meats shut down. The mutual aid group started informally renting the space almost a year ago, and signed an official month-to-month sublease in July, according to Briggs.

A 1950s-era warehouse, the 500-square-foot site with a huge walk-in freezer was ideal for accepting donations from individuals, restaurants, and a USDA program in which Bunny Hop was enrolled. The loading dock out back of the property on Baltimore Avenue just west of Cobbs Creek was covered, so even in bad weather, volunteers could stand outside and assemble boxes in a COVID-safe environment.

Building from that base, Bunny Hop was able to grow its program. It maintained weekly, public food distributions in University City, Kensington and Cobbs Creek.

But the meat company’s lease for the space at 6250 Baltimore Avenue was always set to expire on March 31. Property owner Media Real Estate Company first received notice in January that 1732 Meats would not renew, according to the property owner’s attorney Enrique Latoison.

Bunny Hop was also notified of this back in January, Briggs said, although official confirmation wasn’t sent until March 17. That timeline aligns with the sublease, which required 14 days notice.

Still, Briggs said Bunny Hop wasn’t given enough time to find a new space. They started a social media campaign to get a lease extension with the property ownership group, asking the account’s Instagram followers to flood an MREC employee named Bernadette Pop with calls and emails.

Followers of the mutual aid group cooperated.

“[MREC has] received 40 to 50 emails and calls to their office with these false allegations,” said Latoison, the attorney. “They have made it seem as though Media Real Estate Company is simply throwing them out, when they only ever had a month-to-month lease with their landlord with 14-day notice.”

A representative from 1732 Meats declined to comment for this story.

Bunny Hop PHL is expected to vacate the property by midnight on Wednesday. Briggs said they and their co-organizers are working on moving their equipment to storage — and still hoping to host its anniversary distribution this weekend.

“It’s just kind of heartbreaking,” Briggs said. “These people have trusted us in the last year to help them. That weighs on me.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...