On Saturday, March 21, chicken enthusiasts from all over Chicago flocked to Woodlawn’s Angelic Organics Learning Center to attend a free workshop on basic backyard chicken care. It was the Center’s second such workshop and, like the first held in Lakeview last November, reservations for its thirty spots sold out quickly. The crowd that gathered around the potluck afterward contained longtime chicken owners as well as many urban gardeners looking to include eggs among their home-grown produce.
While the idea of raising chickens in the city might raise some eyebrows, workshop leader Linda Nellett says it is happening “a lot more than people know about.” Immigrant communities, for instance, “see it as standard practice” to keep a few hens in the courtyard of an apartment building. And with the growing interest in local and organic food, urban chickens are only going to get more popular.
That is, as long as their owners can dodge the legal obstacles the city tends to put in their way. Last November, Alderman Lona Lane (18th) proposed banning the birds on the premise that they pose a public health hazard–a claim chicken owners strongly and successfully contested, with the city council eventually voting down the proposal. However, they still face the inconvenience of a prohibition on slaughtering chickens in the city, which is a problem for people with old hens that have ceased laying or who, like Nellett, have raised chicks that turned out to be loud and aggressive roosters. She acknowledges that “no one wants to see you offing a chicken behind your apartment,” but she and other chicken owners would like Chicago to allow a “traveling slaughterhouse”–which, as its name implies, could take care of the unsavory business of slaughter throughout the city without creating another stockyards in anyone’s backyard.
Those involved with the Angelic Organics Learning Center are used to dealing with the issues that arise when attempting agriculture in a city setting. Chickens are just one of the topics of the many urban agriculture workshops they offer, which include beekeeping, composting, and rooftop and container growing. The Center also collaborates with community groups across the city, as program director Martha Boyd explained in an email: “Our Chicago staff work with urban food system partner projects in various neighborhoods (at present primarily Rogers Park, South Chicago, Little Village, Woodlawn), helping them conceive, plan, and implement their ideas for healthy local food systems.”
In addition to its Chicago office, located on the second floor of Woodlawn’s First Presbyterian Church, the Center also has an office in Caledonia, Illinois, at Angelic Organics’ farm. That’s where it was conceived and founded in 1998 by farmer John Peterson and members of the farm’s community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. Today, it’s the site of tours, workshops, and other hands-on programs that constitute the Center’s On-Farm and Farmer Training Initiatives.
Besides these and the Chicago-based Urban Initiative, Boyd says, “The other area we spend a lot of time [on] is coalition building and policy work with the groups involved in the Chicago Food Policy network, advocates for urban agriculture, and specific issues that arise related to urban farming and land use in the city.” For the Center’s staff, this could mean anything from defeating the chicken ban to lobbying for increased government funding for local food systems. Driving these efforts is their vision, as stated on their website, of “healthy food as a human right.”
Angelic Organics Learning Center serves a diverse demographic, as was in evidence at Saturday’s gathering of chicken enthusiasts. “Workshops draw people from all around and outside Chicago,” says Boyd, and sure enough, in attendance were many Northsiders as well as residents of Hyde Park, South Shore, Oak Park, and even a poultry scientist from Sudan (now living in Chicago). As people mingled and partook of potluck dishes–including an omelet of backyard chicken eggs–another of the Center’s goals seemed in sight: that of forming connections between people and the sources of their food and, in turn, each other.