How urban chickens can help cities achieve food security

With inflation hitting all areas of spending, Canadians say food prices are where they’re hit the hardest. From May 2021 to May 2022, the price of food increased by 9.7%. And in a survey conducted by Statistics Canada in April, 43% of respondents said rising food prices had affected them the most over the past six months, followed by rising transport prices, at 32%.

Staple foods increased in all areas in May 2022, from fresh fruit (+10%) to meat (+10.1%) and fresh vegetables (+8.2%). While planting vegetables in your garden allows people to grow their own food source (as well as the wellness benefits of tending a garden), complex protein sources are harder to come by. This is where backyard hens come in. Hens lay an average of one egg per day for 200-250 days per year. They are a reliable source of fresh protein with low upfront and ongoing costs.

As the price of groceries rises, growing your own food can be a powerful tool to feed households affordably and make cities more food secure. Backyard hens can be part of this strategy.

The idea: Support urban food security by enabling citizens to raise laying hens in their backyards.

How it works: Over the past decade, cities across Canada have piloted urban chicken programs. Saint John was the first city in the Maritimes to allow homeowners to raise chickens, in 2013, while Toronto’s UrbanHensTO pilot project began five years later. Vancouver and Calgary began allowing backyard hens in 2022, although Calgary, which recently did the same, limited its program to 100 applicants for the first year.

Rules vary by city, but generally chicken keepers must apply for a permit or register their chickens. Vancouver allows a maximum of four hens, while Calgary stipulates a minimum of two and a maximum of four, since the hens must be part of a flock. The regulations also cover the size of enclosures, as well as doors that can be locked at night to protect them from predators, such as coyotes.

Paul Hughes, executive director of Grow Calgary, a nonprofit community farm, has long been a supporter of urban chickens. “They fit in very well in an urban environment because of their size and the ease with which they can feed on very simple table scraps,” says Hughes, which helps reduce household waste. Alternatively, he says a $10 bag of feed sustains three hens for two months. Enclosures can cover a range of costs, but Hughes built his from scrap materials. The hens themselves are also inexpensive, costing around $10 each for a standard laying hen, and up to $50 or more for heirloom varieties that lay eggs in unconventional colors.

There are, however, opponents of the move, citing concerns over cleanliness, hygiene and noise. The town of Tecumseh in southwestern Ontario halted its two-year urban hen pilot program in March 2022 due to complaints that the chicken coops were attracting rodents. But Hughes says mice and rats are prevalent in urban settings, and the presence of chickens isn’t a big factor in their proliferation. While chickens are susceptible to bird flu, the isolated nature of backyard flocks makes it easy to identify and isolate problems to prevent the spread of disease.

As for noise complaints, Hughes reminds us that roosters are crowing, not hens, which is why most urban chicken programs don’t allow roosters. “The hens are very, very calm,” he says. “They make a tiny bit of noise when they eat an egg because they are very proud. It’s their big event of the day.

The big picture: Urban hens are not the only solution to feeding cities, but they can be part of it. “Our food security in Canada is so low,” says Hughes. “Every small initiative will add significantly to our ability to feed ourselves. Families that choose to have chickens will improve their household food security. Hughes thinks cities can and should do more to encourage citizens to raise chickens through city campaigns, similar to recycling campaigns. ” [Cities can] promoting hens as a way to reduce organic waste and as a way to access nutritious food,” he says.

Just as cities provide free compost for gardens, cities could also subsidize the materials needed to raise chickens as an incentive or subsidize the chickens themselves. In 2010, the city of Mouscron, Belgium, donated 50 pairs of hens for waste management and egg production.

As a bonus, Hughes reminds us of the emotional support provided by chickens. “We call them pets with benefit pets,” he says. “A dog gives you nothing back. A cat gives you nothing in return. But a hen gives you an egg.

This story is part of a series on food insecurity in Canada funded by the Maple Leaf Center for Action on Food Securityin partnership with Community Food Centers Canada.

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