News / Health

    Washington DC Residents Lobby to Raise Chickens on Capitol Hill

    Concerns over industrialized food system prompt supporters of locally-raised poultry

    Local food proponents or 'locavores,' want to raise backyard chickens in Washington, DC.
    Local food proponents or 'locavores,' want to raise backyard chickens in Washington, DC.

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    Washington, D.C., home to presidents, senators, ambassadors, and — if some residents have their way — urban chicken farmers.

    These poultry pioneers are part of a growing movement of Americans who are promoting local production as an alternative to the country's industrialized food system.

    But not everyone in Washington thinks chickens will make good neighbors.

    Chickens on Capitol Hill

    Amanda Cundiff raises three Rhode Island Red hens behind her modest yellow townhouse just a few kilometers from the U.S. Capitol.

    While backyard poultry are a common sight in the developing world, they're hardly ever seen in America, where most chickens are raised on large commercial farms.

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    Cundiff grew up outside Los Angeles, California, but says she has a special history with chickens.

    "I grew up in a city with a backyard with a chicken in it named Henrietta," she says. "So it didn't ever seem like a funny thing to me to have chickens in the city."

    Washington resident Amanda Cundiff consumes fresh eggs from the chickens she raises in her backyard.
    Washington resident Amanda Cundiff consumes fresh eggs from the chickens she raises in her backyard.

    Local food movement

    Cundiff's three birds eat table scraps. Their manure makes ideal compost for her garden. And she says her chickens lay the freshest eggs imaginable — great for scrambling, straight from the backyard.

    Cundiff and her backyard eggs reflect a growing trend in America. Concerns over food safety and the environmental and health impacts of industrial agriculture are on the rise. So, many people like Cundiff are seeking out locally grown or organic food, or growing it themselves.

    "I don't see any reason why we shouldn't be growing our own food," she says, "even when we live in cities. I think it's really important to be connected to where our food comes from and not just think it comes from a supermarket."

    Chickens and the law

    Cundiff is not the only Washington, D.C. resident who wants to raise her own chickens. But city laws say chicken coops must be at least 15 meters away from any human residence. Cundiff's backyard is big enough, but most are not.

    One of her neighbors, who was also raising poultry in her backyard, didn't know she was violating city laws until an unknown passerby saw the chickens.

    "The person who was walking by reported my neighbor to the police," she says. "Animal control came and took their chickens."

    "Nuts"

    So Cundiff and her neighbor took the issue to City Hall. They won the support of D.C. City Councilman Tommy Wells.

    But Wells says it took some persuading. "I thought it was nuts," he says. "But other cities are doing it."

    Several towns and cities across the United States have recently made it easier for residents to keep backyard chickens. Even New York City has less restrictive laws than Washington, D.C.

    What will the neighbors think?

    But some in Washington don't think chickens belong in the city. Ted Knutson is a reporter living in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.

    "People live in the rural areas to get away from the noise of heavy traffic. Vice versa, people live in the city to get away from rural things," he says.

    Knutson says he's concerned that the chicken waste might spread disease and attract rodents.

    But Councilman Wells says under his proposal, neighbors don't need to worry.

    "There hasn't been shown to be much of a health risk at all. In fact, the regulations are so tightly written that you have to be inspected once a year by the health department."

    And if a neighbor wants to raise chickens, Wells's bill would allow any resident within 30 meters to veto them.

    Chicken politics

    But Ted Knutson and other residents unhappy about living close to livestock warn that Wells welcomes country chickens to the city at his political peril.

    "I would vote against him for that. I just think it is an idea far out in left field."

    Knutson doesn't have to worry just yet about chickens moving in next door. The proposal is stuck between the health department and the city council, and these days, the council has other priorities.

    So, for the time being, Amanda Cundiff is one of the few in this city eating eggs laid in the shadow of the nation's capitol.  


    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

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