It all started when I decided to plant veggies in a neighborhood more accustomed to azaleas and roses. Pretty soon, I was harvesting salad — arugula along the driveway, okra at the sidewalk, tomatoes by the mailbox — while most of my neighbors were pruning their ornamental shrubbery. My husband joked, "Next thing I know, you'll be raising chickens." Chickens! I took it as a challenge.
Thus, what started as a casual effort to sow a few fresh vegetables escalated into a henhouse in the backyard, along with a reconsideration of where our food comes from and how much we waste when we're not paying attention. But let me back up and introduce the Buffies: five very pretty, very hungry chickens.
Chickens: Real-Life Garbage Disposals
The Buffies live on our urban quarter acre, where they each consume a quarter pound of edible garbage every day and transform it into pale-blue eggs with marigold-orange yolks. We call them the Buffies in honor of our first chicken, Buffy. When she was eviscerated by a possum and my sobbing children chased her drifting buff-colored feathers over the neighbor's lawn, we city slickers realized what real farmers have long known: Chickens are not pets. You shouldn't name them. But Buffy taught us another lesson before she bought the farm, so to speak. Chickens are the ultimate closed loop, gobbling up piles of dinner scraps and turning them into breakfast Benedict. So we got five more birds — one per family member. (And yes, we possum-proofed the henhouse.)
I can't count the number of visiting children who have chased a basketball behind our garage and been gobsmacked to find a row of chickens clucking at them like so many court side Kardashians at a Lakers game. Nine out of 10 guests of all ages ask how hens can lay eggs without a rooster. I have introduced the word ovulate to more people than most middle school science teachers.
My eldest son is our chicken chairman. Every morning he lugs an enamel pail from beneath the kitchen sink to the henhouse and deposits a mountain of leftovers — coffee grounds, eggshells, soggy cereal, nobody-liked-it casseroles, carrot tops. You should see those birds strip a corncob. Or a watermelon. Or a carcass of any kind.
How Raising Chickens Made Us Rethink Our Eating Habits
Not only do we collect a couple dozen eggs a week, we're wasting less food than ever before, because the hens make us reconsider how we shop and what we cook. For example, we discovered that our chickens don't love spaghetti. Sure, they'll humor a noodle for a second, but once they realize it's not a worm, they lose interest. So now we boil less pasta in the first place. And trust me, when you see your chickens eating leftover eight-dollars-a-pound, organic, grass-fed hamburger, you don't buy as much beef the next time.
We literally take a second look at every piece of edible refuse in our kitchen. "Do you want this, or should I give it to the Buffies?" is a constant refrain, and it never fails to make us contemplate the leftovers in question. Sometimes we think, That's way too good for chickens, so we save it for a snack. And other times we think, We shouldn't feed that slop to our birds, and then wonder, Why did we buy that slop for our children? Collecting leftovers in the chicken pail is like conducting an exit interview with our groceries. Why didn't we like you? Could we have used you more wisely? Through the process, I've come to realize that my family seldom makes it through a packet of deli meat before it spoils, but rarely do we send cauliflower to the Buffies. So I buy less lunch meat and more cruciform veggies.
Fear not, our chickens still get more grub than they can say grace over, thanks to other humans. Our neighbor, for example, brings leftovers from her freebie doctor's office lunches. Chipotle, Panera Bread, Pei Wei, you name it: Chickens love a catered fast-casual meal. We have a friend who arrives on our doorstep with fruit pulp from her juicer, and dinner guests present us with strawberry caps and wilted greens, like so many bouquets of flowers.
It wouldn't surprise me if some of them tried the chicken solution too, because while other houses on our street fill multiple trash receptacles every week, our family uses just one bin. Our refrigerator has never been cleaner, and don't get me started on the value of the organic compost that makes its way from henhouse to garden.
How to Quit Wasting So Much Food
In the U.S., a family of four throws out nearly 1,000 pounds of food a year. Much of it ends up in landfills, so we must start tossing less. Beyond composting, there are creative tactics (though none as out-there as urban chickens). Try a few:
1. Launch a Leftovers League
Got a fridge full of uneaten food? You can bet your neighbors do too. With that in mind, WeHate ToWaste.com founder Jacquelyn Ottman hosted a Leftovers Pooling Party for her birthday instead of going out to dinner. Why not start a once-a-month tradition with a few friends?
2. Download a Kitchen Assistant
An app called Love Your Leftovers helps cooks breathe new life into their extras. For example, all that rice remaining from last night's takeout? The app's got eight recipes, including rice custard and stuffed zucchini. You can also submit your own smart recipes and plan meals.
3. Buddy Up to Bulk Buy
How many times have you left a big box retailer with a bargain two-pack of bread or grapes, only to throw away half? Find someone to team shop with, because no matter how deep the discount, food waste is a bad deal.
4. Think Ugly
Far too many fruits and veggies get chucked because they're not pretty enough for store shelves (twisted carrots, bulbous potatoes...). They often end up rotting in landfills and generating toxic methane. So google "ugly produce" or "imperfect produce" to see if any local companies are trying to change attitudes by offering discounts.
In California's Bay Area, for example, Imperfect Produce delivers misshapen fruits and veggies to consumers at a 30 to 50 percent discount. Hungry Harvest in Baltimore sends retail rejects (with recipes) to homes and businesses throughout Maryland and Virginia, as well as Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. In Cleveland, Forest City Weingart Produce Co. recently started selling discounted ugly produce to retail customers, who can also order deliveries sent to neighbors in need. Now that's a beautiful thing.
So, might I suggest you put a few cluckers on the lawn, if it's allowed where you live, and see what you learn from a bird's eye view of your own food waste habits? If that isn't practical, there are plenty of other ways to send less to the landfill; check out the ideas below. After all, chickens might not be for everyone, but food waste? It's for the birds.