We were fortunate enough to sit down with the Co-Founder of Bunny Hop, Jena Harris.
Jena is many things: a chef, an activist, a community organizer, and all-around strong, Queer, Black woman. Her greatest trait, by my personal observation through the interview, is she is a giver; a distributor of both physical and educational resources. Past her provisions of fresh produce at affordable costs, she is educating on food insecurity and how to combat racism in her community.
Harris began doing free food distribution in 2019. Working within the 1149 Cooperative, she started a free breakfast program. The 1149 Cooperative was a shared kitchen and event space in South Philly, the predecessor to what is now The People's Kitchen. Here she was able to have a space for her personal catering business foodeveryonedeserves. Straight from her website, Jena describes her venture as a way “to connect grassroots community work and [her] love of feeding people.” The Cooperative was a place to sustain that initiative.
“Being able to support community building with food is essential to maintaining the important work of building awareness and calling out injustices.”
About Jena Harris
Food Justice is a phrase Jena likes to use. As defined by Nourishlife.org, “Food justice is the belief that healthy food is a human right, so everyone has an inherent right to access healthy, fresh food. Access is a mixture between location, affordability, and cultural appropriateness.” This definition aligns with Jena’s perspective.
“To me, fresh food is a right-- Sustainable food that is good for you, not ‘Filler’.” she says. “I’ve moved away from selling food at all at this point. That’s not me, that’s not my thing--I just want people to be able to enjoy and be comfortable, and be fueled to do what they’re called to do.”
Working with Wholistic Art, she was able to combat food injustice by repurposing perfectly good produce that would otherwise be sent to the garbage. The injustice being the fact that this produce and other foods would never have been brought to those in need without the Free S.A. The Free S.A. was part of programming with The Free Brunch Program of Wholistic Art and a play on words. Rather than CSA (community shared agriculture) which are paid shares of produce and pantry items the Free S.A. distributed fresh produce and assorted groceries to those who were able to participate at no cost. Wholistic Art is a collective, founded by Charlyn Griffith-Oro.
Wholistic fuses work across various cultures and mediums, allowing its members to collaborate in community and support the wholeness of all who participate in the spaces that they create.) As told by Harris, when serving those who are receiving food at a distribution, “[they] expect food that other people didn’t want. Stuff that’s on its last limbs. You’ve got to cook this today [if it’s about to expire]. People don’t have time to do that. Especially folks who have difficulty getting access to food. Time is a resource as well.”
Harris works around the week with volunteers, ensuring that recipients of Bunny Hop are taken care of with “Free Share Boxes.” Inside these boxes, neighbors can expect fresh produce, and it’s not the same every time. She wants you to be excited about the food you are getting. People line up for boxes, and it excites them when they receive them. Different types of food allows for neighbors to share recipes and converse and interact with one another. We can learn together, and build bonds with another. It’s a bridge through personal exchanges. Through food, we can connect. Connection is a skill Jena learned from a young age. She cites her grandmother as a source for learning how to connect. Jena found a way to create relationships through food, doing it in her own way. Throughout the interview I sipped tea that she offered the second we entered her door.
“Food is a medium--I’ve used food to express my love and care--I understood [connection] as something important, and held close, to be welcoming to others and have relationships that are reciprocal. They don’t have to be transactional. You take care of someone--- and they look after you.”
When it comes to keeping herself centered and dealing with her personal struggles, Jena shares how setting boundaries has helped. Her parents taught her from a young age to draw that line between personal life and service. She reminds herself to save some time for herself, to have a cushion, and to have enough fuel to keep pushing.
“Mutual aid isn’t a charity-- it’s not a switch that goes on and off,” Jena stresses. Yet she also stresses that she has to create start and stop times in order to make time for her own personal life. She speaks about creating boundaries within the actual work she does on the clock.
“You have to put your ego to the side to do this kind of work,” she explains.
In my own experience, I have noticed that people can tend to get involved in volunteering for the wrong reasons. When Jena speaks of ego, I think of the ego boost that can be felt when you’ve done good in the community. Unfortunately, these efforts tend to be fleeting. Those who volunteered yesterday, are satisfied because they have made their impact, and the problem is solved. Except it isn’t. On the opposite end, Jena contributes to her projects consistently.
Beginnings of Bunny Hop
In 2020, the 1149 Cooperative disbanded due to uncertainty about the future. Jena and former 1149 Cooperative collaborator, Katie Briggs, continued their efforts to support the community, creating an organization to share food and resources around Easter of 2020. Their first struggle? They had to come up with a name. Katie asked Jena, whose thought process is recounted as, “It’s Easter, it’s springtime- Bunny Hop!”
“Bunny Hop is a network of food source sharing and resource sharing,” as told by Harris; and share they did. These two learned to adapt their food distribution to the times of COVID, starting with fresh produce, soup and household essentials. With uncertainty hanging overhead, grocery stores were flooded by those preparing to hunker down and wait out the surge of the virus.
The bare essentials became rare. If you didn’t have the means, it was difficult to take care of yourself. The food that was familiar was nowhere in sight, much less a roll of toilet paper or paper towels. It is one thing to serve yourself in such an unprecedented time, but Bunny Hop was a selfless endeavor to help the community; to step outside of oneself and create avenues to better those around you. It takes someone like Jena Harris, whose love radiates through her work, to step up and answer the call for those in need.
"I feel drawn to this work. I know that I can’t solve every problem in the world, but me being able to have access to food so regularly-- I see it as something everyone should have.
I can sleep better at night when I know that I’m doing what I can, than when I’m sitting back. Everyone has their calling, and knows what they’re good at, and this is something that I’m good at.”
Support for the Protests/George Floyd
As the pandemic carried on into the summer, America faced yet another moment of turmoil with the murder of George Floyd. Protests carried out city to city across the country.
“We’re already in the midst of this pandemic, and it makes people feel hopeless, and now we have [the murder of George Floyd] happen. And it’s not anything new, either. Which is terribly frustrating. Here we are again. Nothing’s changed when someone is being murdered in broad daylight on video.”
When peaceful protests began to organize in Philadelphia, Bunny Hop became a source of aid. Harris recounts her memories of the time when Bunny Hop saw its team start to develop.
“We saw people wanted to do something, folks who were reluctant to be in the streets but wanted to supply food or teargas [protection] kits.”
Due to the shutdowns and curfews, Bunny Hop was one of a few organizations that was able to continue to provide aid since they operated apart from the city. Jena believes this is why they received so much support. They received a lot of social media buzz because of their presence as a community-driven distributor that was making a real impact. The George Floyd protests also helped her to understand who exactly Bunny Hop was serving. There are no listed requirements to participate in Bunny Hop’s services. Bunny Hop simply serves to aid the community of Philadelphia, whether that be families in need, or grassroots activists seeking to make an impact in their community.
“You can’t ever see hunger,” says Jena. “I’ve had people with jobs come to get free breakfast, people without homes--there’s no way to gauge that from the outside--there is no type.”
During the first week of June, Bunny Hop was able to make 1,000 meals. Over time they started to receive shoutouts online and receive a large amount of recognition. An influx of donations allowed them to bring in more produce and pay more for a larger space to hold it all. Jena retells the experience:
“Our warehouse, we had a little bit of dry storage and a little bit of walk-in space [that] turned into ‘we need a lot more space--We’ve got three pallets of stuff in here, we’ve got diapers, we’ve got toilet paper, and toiletries, and snack packs for protestors. We’ve got people loading up and going into downtown, and giving it to other people so they can distribute. Stuff their backpacks--because they were going through the crowds [at the protests]--That’s when the network switched from just being like a food distribution to like we’re a resource hub.”
Resources Beyond Produce
In the fight against racism, Jena supports protests and also seeks to educate. “We inherit so many bad things that need to be unlearned--how do we unlearn this together across intersections?” she wondered. At the time, Bunny Hop began to hold classes on Anti-Racism in Food Justice that were facilitated by Adonis Okonkwo, a teacher who had been out of work because of COVID. In these classes one could begin to learn about and unpack a variety of different things, including: Differences between mutual aid and charity, critical race theory terminology and privilege. These classes were required to be taken by white members of Bunny Hop while uprisings continued throughout Philadelphia (and rightfully so).
“It’s also not about being nice. A lot of times white folks feel like being nice is enough and it's not,” explains Jena.
Attendance in these classes was required for core volunteers of Bunny Hop (bunnies) to help them fully recognize why they are serving with the organization and the people it serves. Bunnies serve because they want to, not because it looks admirable or “woke” for them to do so. It is because they care for their underserved neighbors who lack access to basic resources.
“It’s great to have hands, but it’s better have people that have the right intention behind the work they’re doing. I also believe in energy, and it’s important that people come with the right energy into this work. That’s something that people have to figure out for themselves-- We’re doing this because it’s what we're supposed to do. This is how we take care of ourselves.”
Jena supports Bunny Hop through her own personal connections. When she isn’t working for Bunny Hop, she is working as a Grocery Manager for Riverwards Produce. Jena orders the produce that makes up the Free Share Boxes at wholesale cost which is cheaper than you would find in the grocery store, which is normally marked up to return a profit. Not many are as fortunate as Jena to have such resources, and she uses them to spread the wealth to those in need. On top of this, she does not receive a paycheck for her efforts.
“The world’s messed up, there’s only so much I can do, but I’m going to do what I can. That’s what we do, we just do what we’re able to do. We make mistakes--the truth is we’re still able to circle back. There has to be a space for forgiveness and to correct yourself.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, vendors varied as fellow food programs relied on resources like Philly Food Works and Share Philly. Currently, they receive most produce from Riverwards Produce and Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative and Common Market.
Numbers and Information
At the time of this interview, Bunny Hop was made up of about 50 volunteers, with 17 being core/returning volunteers. Every week they cook, bake, pack, deliver, and host their leadership groups. They are entirely funded by donations. There are no salaries and no payments outside of the cost of gas to drivers who request the stipend. Donations came in excess of $30,000 in May and June after the murder of George Floyd. Bunny Hop’s overhead for creating food boxes each week is about $2,000 to feed 350 people; this does not factor in the rent they pay for dry/refrigerated storage and supply costs. What might be considered a lot of money can be used up quickly. They are finishing up their fundraising run from November to March, and they could use your help at this current time!
Jena has been fighting for food justice since before the pandemic, but the need has grown larger than before. Food Justice will remain a cause to care about even once COVID has passed. Eat Up The Borders looks to pay it forward by giving Jena Harris and Bunny Hop a platform. We hope that you can do your part to help take care of Bunny Hop like it has taken care of our community.
As of April 1 2021 Bunny Hop no longer has a home to distribute out of. We were given 14 days notice that our lease was ending and that we would need to relocate. After asking for an extra 4 days to be able to move out properly and serve our neighbors one last time Bunny Hop was threatened with legal action if we were not entirely moved out by April 5 2021. We complied and are currently in hiatus until the first weekend in May. We hope to find a space to continue to build out our distribution plans, but in the meantime we are moving forward with creating a summer schedule for walk up distributions in West Philly and Kensington. The shift of having to move out of the warehouse means that we must pause our deliveries as we no longer have a space to receive and store the amount of produce and dry goods we were ordering/receiving for our neighbors.
You can donate directly to Bunny Hop via their website bunnyhopphl.com
Follow Bunny Hop on Instagram @bunnyhopphl to stay up to date!