By Melissa Vatterott, Food and Farm Coordinator
On Thursday, February 25th, I testified at the Public Safety Committee Meeting at St. Louis City Hall in support of Board Bill Number 296, which would increase the number and types of animals allowed in the city. Alderman Scott Ogilvie introduced the bill on February 5th, 2016. The Public Safety Committee voted the bill out of committee, with a 7-1 vote.
Why MCE Supports Animal Agriculture in the City of St. Louis
As an environmental advocacy organization, MCE recognizes that industrialized agriculture threatens everything we seek to protect – clean air, clean water, open space, wetlands, natural floodplains, and more. As a result, our Food and Farm Program advocates for a localized, sustainable food system that support farmers that take care of their natural resources and provides access to nutritious, sustainably grown local food for all people across Missouri and the St. Louis Regional Foodshed.
Urban agriculture is one tool in the toolbox for increasing access to healthy locally-grown food and is especially beneficial for low-income individuals who may struggle to afford local products in the grocery store and may live in communities where healthy food in general is of limited supply. While individuals in the City of St. Louis are free to grow fruits and vegetables in their backyards, the number of traditional farm animals currently allowed is restricted based on the number of dogs and cats on the property. The current ordinance in effect allows only four animals in the aggregate. For example, if you have a cat and a dog, you can only have two additional animals of the following variety: chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, guineas, peafowl, or rabbits. As a result, MCE saw a need to update the current ordinance and expand the number and variety of animals allowed in the city.
What is in the Bill
The bill would allow individuals to own up to eight fowl and up to eight rabbits on lots up to 20,000 square feet. On lots greater than 20,000 square feet, an individual could have one additional fowl and one additional rabbit for every 1,000 square feet in excess of 20,000 square feet, to a maximum of 20 each. In addition, on lots of at least 20,000 square feet, an individual can own up to four livestock animals and their offspring under six months of age. “Livestock” is currently drafted to mean goats, sheep, and ratite birds. One additional livestock animal is permitted for every 2,500 square feet in excess of 20,000 square feet on the property, to a maximum of 18 animals and their offspring under six months of age.
Benefits of the Bill
This animal agriculture bill, if passed, will prove greatly beneficial to St. Louisans for several reasons. First and foremost, by expanding the limitation on small farm animals such as chickens and separating them from domestic animals, the bill can help to mitigate the effects of the food deserts that riddle large parts of our City. Allowing people to cultivate their own food and raise farm animals can be a large part of reducing food insecurity and expanding access to fresh eggs and milk, especially in neighborhoods with few or no fresh food stores.
Additionally, this measure will help strengthen our communities in many ways. In our experience, when people cultivate their own food, they are more inclined to share both food and knowledge with others. This not only brings joy to individuals and families, but also fosters tighter-knit, more supportive neighborhoods. Even neighbors who may initially be opposed to their presence in a neighborhood typically become appreciative of farm animals as they come to learn more about them through first-hand experience.
Another important benefit of expanding St. Louisans’ ability to raise certain farm animals is that it expands the opportunities for nutritional, food safety, and food source education. This is important for all age groups, but is especially crucial for children and teens, helping them develop good food habits into adulthood. Lindsay Elliott, a friend of the St. Louis Food Policy Coalition and the Director of Community Health Initiatives at DeSales Community Housing Corporation, shared this experience with us:
As a resident of Benton Park West, too many mornings pass by that I see young people awaiting their bus or walking to school with bags of chips and processed foods. This reality—their normal daily rhythm—makes me long for change. Therein lies a discrepancy I can’t seem to reconcile: why is it completely normal to a child in our city to eat chips for his or her breakfast? Why do we watch it happen?
While I do not think this bill solves the dilemma of undernutrition that sweeps through St. Louis streets, it certainly has the potential to name the ‘white elephant.’ When I started raising chickens in my yard last year, kids on my block were overjoyed to know that these animals created food they could eat. They had never before seen or thought of where their food originated. The presence of my chickens led to 5-minute teachable moments—while I walked to and from my mailbox or coming home from work—which followed their inquisitive curiosities: ‘Can we feed the chickens today? Can we have an egg?’ This led to their general interest in apples, peaches, and pears. Most days, kids knock on my front door at 5:05PM to ask for an apple or pear.
That is the value of this legislation. It may not change the food crisis that faces our city, but it will push us onward in efforts to see all people, especially young children, live healthier and more nutritious lives.
The measure would not only help raise awareness among neighbors, but it would also facilitate the ability of community gardens and urban farms throughout the city to provide educational and training programs. The significance of increased awareness of how food is produced and where food comes from lies in the fact that it brings increased community participation and empowerment.
Another important benefit of this bill is that it gives St. Louis City residents additional opportunities to spend time outdoors and engage in physical activity. While certainly taking care of farm animals such as chickens and goats is not the only way to do this, it connects two important aspects of public health: nutrition and exercise. Furthermore, as raising small farm animals often engages neighbors who are curious and inquisitive, it has the potential to encourage more people to exercise and spend time outdoors with neighbors.
In addition to these benefits related to community-building, food access, and public health, the proposed legislation also carries important environmental merits. By allowing City residents to raise certain animals and use their green waste to feed the animals, the legislation helps reduce the amount of waste that goes into the City’s landfills. Furthermore, because small farm animals—in particular chickens—eat a variety of bothersome and dangerous pests, they reduce the need for chemical pesticides on lawns and gardens.
Passing this bill is important for one additional reason that is particular to our City’s history. St. Louis City has a significant and growing immigrant population, and many of these residents came from countries where keeping a few productive animals at home is the norm. Of course, St. Louis is very different from those places. But the fact that the proposed legislation will not only deliver numerous social, public health, and environmental benefits to City residents, but will also increase the City’s cultural-sensitivity, should be seen as an additional advantage.
MCE, members of the St. Louis Food Policy Coalition, community members, local farmers, and food enthusiasts firmly believe that Board Bill Number 296 will go a long way in helping City residents, and especially our youngest St. Louisans, get connected with their food, and in so doing will produce invaluable public health and community-building benefits. To summarize, these benefits include, but are not limited to:
- access to healthy and protein-rich food where there may be no adequate grocery stores
- increased community participation and tighter-knit neighborhoods
- increased awareness of nutrition and food access inequalities
- reduced green waste and pesticide use
- and increased outdoor physical activity.
Others Who Joined MCE in Support of the Bill
Others who testified in support of the Board Bill 296 included:
- Joel Walker, the Senior Specialist with the International Institute Global Farms program
- Scott Krummenacher, city resident and Professor in the Department of Political Science at Washington University, who led the Sustainability Exchange student team helped to draft this bill language
- Mary Ostafi, the Director of Urban Harvest STL
- Ryan Albritton, CEO and Co-Founder of Sprouthood and St. Louis Food Policy Coalition member on behalf of Sprouthood
- Whitney Sewell, Enrollment Coordinator at St. Louis Language Immersion Schools and St. Louis Food Policy Coalition member on behalf of the Greenhouse Venture.
We sincerely hope that the Board of Alderman will consider the merits of the proposed legislation, and take action to improve the quality of life of all St. Louisans. The Board of Alderman will vote on Board Bill 296 on Friday, March 4th at 10 am at City Hall. We look forward to seeing what happens!