COOP (Chicken Owners Outside Philadelphia)
COOP (Chicken Owners Outside Philadelphia)

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What's a Henweigh?

Source: Urban Direction
Date: June 11, 2009
Byline: Gregory Heller

As most of my friends know, my father and his partner, Nancy, keep a flock of chickens in their backyard in Springfield Township, just outside the Philadelphia city limits. Not only do they keep chickens, but they run a chicken owners' co-op called Chicken Owners Outside Philadelphia (COOP). Yesterday, Nancy, the chickens, and COOP were featured in Philadelphia CityPaper, in Bruce Schimmel's column. Check it out!

So what do suburban chickens have to do with the future of urban America? As the CityPaper article touts, "in this little hamlet just outside Chestnut Hill, suburbia is slowly reverting to rural." The COOP website lists 30 active members within this small community. On Dad and Nancy's block, several families raise chickens, others have backyard gardens, and one family has goats.

For the past sixty years, most American metro areas have gotten used to the trend of urban decentralization and sprawling suburbs. Could backyard farming start to change this adopted land-use pattern by reclaiming inner-ring suburbs as semi-rural land? My parents' backyard farm community, adjacent to the pristine, 426-acre Erdenheim Farm (recently permanently preserved) makes me wonder. When I take visitors out there they often are amazed that this is the closest inner-ring suburb to one of America's largest cities. What does this mean for land-use and for local food production?

By farming their own eggs, these suburban chicken owners are part of the emerging local food movement in America. There are several important impacts of the local food movement: to reconnect people to where their food comes from, to build local food economies, enhance regional security, promote environmental sustainability, and to combat hunger and obesity. By now there are a number of books and organizations devoted to these issues.

In the Philadelphia region, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission is running the Greater Philadelphia Food Study aimed at "a broad range of food supply issues, such as agricultural production trends, natural resource constraints, processing and distribution facilities, the origins and destinations of food imports and exports, and the efficiency of transporting from farm to plate."

From an urban perspective, access for low-income communities to affordable, healthy food is a major problem. There are so-called "food deserts" in many inner-city areas, where there is no supermarket or outlet for purchasing affordable produce, meat, and dairy. Philadelphia is lucky to have two organizations working on this issue: the Food Trust and Farm to City. In addition the city is lucky to have a number of active urban farms.

On Monday the Philadelphia Inquirer featured West Philly's Mill Creek Farm in an article called "The little half-acre that could: Urban minifarms, like Mill Creek, are keeping many Philadelphians from going hungry." Philadelphia has an impressive amount of urban farmland, from the Walter B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences, to Weavers Way Farm, to Greensgrow Farms.

It its 2008 sustainability rankings, SustainLane ranked Philadelphia 7th in the nation in the category of "Local Food and Agriculture." This ranking was based on farmers markets, community gardens, and urban farms per capita. Philadelphia was the only city with a population over one million in the top ten for this category. New York was number 25 and Chicago was number 27. In other words, for a city its size, Philadelphia is really a leader on urban farming and local food access.

One of the major arguments for local food has to do with transportation. On average, Americans' food travels 1,500 miles from farm to plate. By promoting local food production, we can significantly cut down on a major culprit in America's greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, local food production ensures greater access for a region's communities. In other words, by focusing and investing in the local economy, residents can have access to fresh food closer to home.

As some of you know, my girlfriend, Annie, did an experiment last summer trying to only eat food that had not been transported by car or truck. While some items (like salt) are not available in Philadelphia's local economy, I was shocked by how much success she found. She grew food in her local community garden. She discovered that Weavers Way Farm transports some of its food by bike and commuter train to the Reading Terminal Market. She obtained local meat by biking to Saul High School, and dairy from Merrymeade Farm in Montgomery County, accessible by train and bike.

Of course, just because it is possible to eat almost 100% local and carbon free does not mean it is easy, or that it can go mainstream. However, it does show that in Philadelphia at least, it is possible. And that gives us a strong foundation to build up local food access and create a more sustainable and accessible food system for our region's residents. We are going to get there through big-picture policy like the work that DVRPC is developing, and grassroots efforts by people who create a market for local food, and who produce their own (like the backyard chicken owners).

The CityPaper article points out that while chicken owning is legal in Springfield Township, it is not legal in the city of Philadelphia. However, there is a movement to lobby City Council to legalize chicken owning and egg farming in Philadelphia. According to, chicken owning is legal in a number of U.S. cities including Denver, Miami, Atlanta, Chicago, Baltimore, Minneapolis, St. Louis, New York, and Seattle.

If Philadelphia is serious about wanting to increase its access to local food for its residents, perhaps this would be a smart step forward. Meanwhile, here is a list of municipalities in the Philadelphia suburbs that are chicken friendly.

And for the record, the answer to the title question is three to ten pounds, depending on the breed and age.