Tuesday, November 25, 2008


November 27, 2008

Every school day at 7 a.m. sharp, 12-year-old Mame arrives at the Peace Garden adjoining St. Augustine Catholic School in the South Bronx.
The chickens are waiting.
The rustle of her footsteps through the fallen leaves brings 15 big, colorful birds out of their coop and into the pen. They come around her, eyeing her intently, clucking curiously. Mame (pronounced "Mommy") checks their water and food, then looks inside the henhouse. Today she finds a clutch of three large brown eggs, neatly laid in a nest of straw on the floor. She gathers them up.
"I love to take care of the chickens!" Mame smiles. "They look so beautiful, and they know me!"
Mame, whose family immigrated from Senegal two years ago, is a member of the school's Chicken Club, nine students whose year- long project is to learn about ecosystems and human nutrition while practicing hands-on animal husbandry. They perform the daily tasks of keeping the water fresh, the food abundant, the pen cleaned and layered with sweet-smelling straw: farmers' work. They monitor the health of the chickens, their egg production, and the cost of feed. In the spring, they will present their findings at the New York Catholic Schools Science Fair. They're confident they'll win.
"Whenever I go to a principals' meeting," says Cathryn Trapp, St. Augustine's principal, "their first question always is, ‘Well, how are the chickens?' They're jealous."
The school's experiment in urban agriculture is sponsored by Heifer International, the same folks who turn your donations into beehives in Bolivia and goats in Ghana, and Just Food, a nonprofit group committed to localizing the food supply by organizing neighborhood-run farmers' markets and showing community gardeners how to increase their productivity and diversify their output. Their mutual goal, in the word of the day, is "sustainability."
"Chickens are a must for farming ecologically," remarks Owen Taylor, who heads up the chicken project for Just Food. "They eat everything. They'll pick off the insect pests in your garden and consume all your kitchen scraps — meat and egg-shells included. They also aerate the soil by their scratching. In return, you not only get absolutely fresh eggs but the best high-nitrogen fertilizer around. It's great nutrition for you and less chemicals for your garden. And they're not that much work. Plus, they'll bring people to your garden just for the interest."
Mike Brady, the development director at St. Augustine's, was intrigued by the idea and last summer secured a grant from Heifer and Just Food for a coop and pen, 15 chickens, and dry feed enough for a year. In accord with Heifer's philosophy of "passing on the gift," the school's chicken corps will share their expertise with other interested gardeners and lend a hand in new coop construction. Just Food currently sponsors six sites in the city, and Taylor anticipates three more next year.
The St. Augustine group built their structures over three days in August. It was a cooperative project: Taylor drew up the plans and ordered the materials — basically wood, nails, and of course, chicken wire — from Home Depot. Students (Mame among them), teenage alumni, and community gardeners performed the labor. "Working with St. Augustine's was really satisfying, with all the young people involved," Taylor notes. "That's where it's at in terms of community involvement."
The chickens arrived in October from Awesome Farm, a 30-acre organic livestock operation in Tivoli, N.Y., about a hundred miles north of the city.
"The kind we brought them," says KayCee Wimbish, a crazy- for-chickens young woman who runs the farm with her partner Owen O'Connor, "are called Black Sex-linked chickens, which I know is a weird name — it means you can tell male from female chicks by their color as soon as they hatch. They're a cross between the Rhode Island Red and the Barred Rock varieties. They're bred for their heartiness and their productivity, and because they mature early."
The hens at the St. Augustine Peace Garden are mateless — New York City codes forbid roosters because of their noisy crowing (car alarms, however, are permitted) — but this does not matter, to the humans at least; unmated hens will still produce an egg every 18 hours or so.
The fowl are well-fed. In addition to poultry pellets (which Brady buys along with bales of straw from the only remaining feed store in New York City, right down the block), they are given the leftovers from the school cafeteria, which in the past were just bagged up as garbage. That's urban ecology.
But there's human ecology too.
Sixth-grader Ken, age 12, is a member of the Chicken Club.
"He's a little crazy — attention-deficit," Trapp admits. "He's on meds, he's in special ed, he's a terror in the classroom, but he's a different person when he gets out there. I call it ‘chicken therapy for the soul.'"
"I like animals," Ken says. "I can tell all the chickens apart — they're just like people. I have a favorite one, too — I named her Cassandra. She always comes when I call to her."
"It's amazing," remarks Brady. "Kids who are hyperactive, who have no patience in the classroom, are patient with the chickens. They love it when the chickens pile out the henhouse door to greet them."
But there is another side. The productive life of a laying hen is about two years, which means that before they graduate, Mame and Ken will have to face the hardest fact of farming: turning the hens they have come to love into chicken soup.
Brady is unruffled at the gruesome prospect. In the spring, he'll add a pair of turkeys to the school's micro-farm; they'll be ready for slaughter by November.
"I'm not sure what next Thanksgiving will bring," he says. "There may be some heartbreak here. But kids need to experience that too. They need to know how food really gets to their table."
That teaching may come slowly. Right now, the children — and even some of the teachers — will not eat the eggs. "They think it's robbing the cradle or something," Brady guesses.
"They're learning about the cycle of life," says Trapp. "They're learning about caring and taking responsibility. And they're learning that we're all part of nature — even here in the South Bronx."

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