It’s never my intention to embarrass my wife when we go out to dinner. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t spill food on myself or the floor. I save that for when I’m at home. But she sometimes cringes when I approach the waiter for a to-go box and say, “If I don’t eat it, our chickens will.” The staff is always happy to hear that the food isn’t going to waste. But my wife pretends she doesn’t know me when I talk to strangers about feeding chickens food scraps.
Too few restaurants and homeowners compost or give their food waste to farmers. And that contributes to the fact that the average citizen generates 20 pounds of food waste every month, according to the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. That adds up to about half a ton annually for a family of four.
Citywide, that means food waste from homes, restaurants and institutions composes about 13 percent of municipal trash that goes to the landfill. That probably costs most cities about $40 a ton or more—carried by garbage trucks that get as little as 3 miles per gallon (not a typo). So, every time your customers or a restaurant throws away food, they’re creating upward pressure on their own tax bill.
There are also environmental advantages to letting chickens eat these food scraps. If these scraps go to a landfill, they slowly decompose in a way that turns them into methane gas. The methane will escape into the atmosphere where it is 25 times worse for promoting climate disruption than is an equivalent amount of CO2 coming from your car exhaust or those garbage trucks.
And if you’re on a city sewer line and dispose of food scraps down the drain, with or without a garbage disposal, things aren’t much better. When those scraps of food waste get to your water treatment plant, the staff has to spend money getting all that organic matter out of the water so it won’t cause fish kills downstream.
Not only is it expensive to landfill food waste or remove food from wastewater, but chicken feed isn’t cheap either. If my two-person household generates almost 500 pounds of food waste per year, I estimate that we’re able to give a third of that to the chickens: about 160 pounds (much of that weight is water, but still). I don’t have hard numbers, but I believe our modest efforts at giving chickens food waste from our kitchen, our restaurant leftovers and scraps from our neighbors might cut our feed bill by as much as 20 percent.
Clearly, feeding food waste to chickens is a great way to fight climate disruption, reduce landfill costs, cut water treatment costs and shave down your chicken feed bill, too. So here are some tips on how you and your customers can reduce your contribution to food waste and climate disruption as well as cut the cost of feeding chickens.
We already have a container for food scraps that go to the compost bins. A few years back, we set up a second one on the kitchen counter for scraps that would please the chickens. The original compost container still gets things that the chickens won’t or shouldn’t eat: coffee grounds, paper towels, banana peels, orange skins, avocado skins (toxic to chickens) and anything moldy or spoiled.
Here’s a list some of the things that do go in the chicken food container. (A handy tip: In both containers, I put a folded paper towel—or surplus napkins from buying fast-food—in the bottom to absorb moisture and to make it easier for the contents to pop out without having to be scraped out.)
Being omnivores, chickens like almost all the scraps of vegetables and fruit that we can give them with the important exception of uncooked potato skins and avocados, which are reportedly toxic. Chickens will attack any leftover corn on the cob, overripe cucumbers, carrot tops and more.
Occasionally, at our neighborhood grocery, I’m able to divert a box of vegetable scraps from the dumpster, and the chickens plow through those right away.
Bread, Grains & Chips
We sometimes freeze stale bread to add to soups, but we also give bread scraps to the chickens. They’ll devour stale bread, chips and crackers as well as leftover rice, old pasta, cereal crumbs from the bottom of the box: anything flaky or crunchy from grains will suit them.
Meat & Fish
It’s important to remember that chickens are not vegetarians. Nor are they egalitarians, feminists or pacifists, but that’s grist for another story. They like meat. I mean they like meat the way a good southern boy needs his daily dose of pork products. Chickens really like meat, including gristle, tendons and fat. They’ll pick bones clean, leaving nothing to attract vermin—nothing! And because we cover the ground in the pen with wood chips, any bones quickly decompose in place, too.
But we don’t feed them chicken scraps. That would be weird. We don’t want to support cannibalism for any species. (We also avoid the potential for disease. Mad cow disease came from feeding cow parts to cows, after all.)
And we don’t give them fish bones. The smell would stick around too long. Although we do give them scraps of fish skin, lobster shells and shrimp shells, which get gobbled right up. Maybe you already knew this, but those shellfish are related to insects, and you know how chickens love them some bugs!
Fats & Oils
Type “fatbergs” in a search engine. If you or your customers have the bad habit of pouring cooking oils down the sink, you really should see what this stuff looks like when it congeals inside a city sewer pipe. These grotesque “icebergs” of fat cause nearly half of the 36,000 sewer overflows in the United States each year. And even when the fat doesn’t congeal into a fatberg, it still has to be removed from the wastewater, and that costs taxpayer money.
Instead of pouring cooking oils or fats from bacon, burgers, steaks and pork chops down the drain or even putting that stuff in the trash, we pour (and scrape) our waste oils and fats into a bowl and let them set up in the fridge overnight. We feed it to the hens the next morning. They think it’s pudding. It disappears fast.
That’s not nearly as strange as it sounds. Many cooking oil-recycling operations turn waste oils from restaurants and food processors into feed for livestock or pets anyway. Another tip: If you have dusty bits of pellets or grains too fine for the chickens to eat, these can be mixed with liquid waste oils into a paste that they’ll devour.
The chickens don’t get all the bacon fat at our house though. Not because it would be weird, but because it’d be a waste. It’s the best thing for frying eggs sunny-side up.
We give them their eggshells after we’ve eaten the eggs. We smash the shells flat, so they don’t resemble an egg. We don’t want to give them the wrong idea. But the calcium in the eggs is very valuable.
When they’re laying heavily, they wolf down eggshells. In winter when they’re laying less, they can be laissez-faire about the shells.
Cheese rinds and leftover milk from cereal bowls are also popular with the poultry set.
No, we don’t feed the neighbors to our chickens, but the neighbors do bring food to our chickens. The neighbors say they bring melon rinds, pumpkin guts and leftover pasta because they like to visit the hens. But I think they’re angling for free eggs, too, which we give them because our birds produce more eggs than our household can eat.
Essentially, we encourage a reverse CSA on our block. You may be familiar with community supported agriculture as a method for consumers to pay farmers in advance for their produce. We ask our neighbors to save their kitchen scraps (with the exceptions noted above) and drop them off in the run. After holidays such as Halloween and Thanksgiving, it’s party time in the coop as neighbors drop off their out-of-date ornamental squashes and pumpkins.
I toss these in the pen and then use a long handled child’s shovel (or any sharp-enough, long-handled tool will do) to chop the pumpkin into accessible sections. You can imagine how quickly the seeds disappear. And the flesh goes next, leaving a very thin layer of inedible pumpkin skin.
I know some folks who spoil their birds by cooking the pumpkins first, but that’s not necessary.
You may be able to persuade your conscientious customers to freeze their food scraps and bring them to you at the market. Dump them in your empty coolers, and feed these treats to your chickens when you get back. That way your trip home from market is profitable, too.
Freecycling chicken treats is all well and good, but you’ll want to keep a few things in mind so that you don’t end up providing a feast for vermin that may be able to finagle their way into your chickens’ run, such as mice and rats.
Make sharing scraps from the kitchen part of your morning routine. Give your birds enough time to eat your bounty before bedtime. Tossing scraps into the run during late afternoon or evening is just a way to feed the critters that work the night shift.
Chickens don’t have teeth, so sometimes you, your knife and your cutting board will have to play that role. Mid-ribs of collards, kale and chard for example would be edible, but they’re too big. Chop them into finer, bite-size pieces before tossing them into the countertop container of hen treats.
Right Side Up
Melon and pumpkin scraps are always popular with poultry. But a chunk tossed skin-side up will make it inaccessible for the ladies. I keep a kid-size shovel with a long handle next to the run’s gate (a regular shovel or gravel rake works fine too). If something lands fruit-side down, I can flip it from a standing position with the shovel. I can also chop melons, pumpkins, apples and other fruit into more accessible slices—all without bending over or stepping into the pen.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.