When 15-year-olds Tabitha Burt and Elise Collins discovered that they were living in a “food desert,” they wondered if their experience raising chickens could help others in Wyandotte County, KS.

Nearly a year later, the self-proclaimed Urban Chicken Whisperers have created public displays, educational videos and chicken coops made from recycled and repurposed materials. They’ve presented their Fight the Food Desert! Raise Chickens in Urban K.C.project at the National 4-H Agri-Science Youth Summit in Washington, D.C. and won a $1,000 grant to help build chicken coops and starter chicken kits.

“I’ve always loved chickens, and Elise and I both live in the food desert and have large flocks,” said Tabitha, who goes by Tabbi. “We thought, if people in the food desert had chickens like we do, their eggs would provide them with a source of fresh, vegetarian protein and effectively help the food desert.”

Last September, the two teens started researching food deserts and brainstorming ideas for feeding others in their community. Their initial goal was to build 10 chicken coops with a capacity of 4 chickens each for an estimated yield of 1,000 eggs a year. Once 10 sites are established, this would translate to approximately 10,000 locally raised egg servings annually.

“You see, one hen can lay around 300 eggs a year, which is 300 servings of fresh protein to people who would otherwise have a harder time gaining access to it,” said Elise.

As members of the Piper 4-H Club, they created a plan for Fight the Food Desert! Raise Chickens in Urban K.C. and contacted community partners like Cultivate KC, Kansas City Community Gardens and Kaw Valley Feed & Supply for ideas.

In phase one, they created and installed three educational chicken displays about food deserts, raising chickens and egg nutrition. The most popular part of the displays were the incubators with live, hatching chicks that they placed at two libraries and a YMCA in Kansas City, KS. The teens asked the staff at each location to let them know when the eggs started to hatch so they could come help. All went well until the chicks started hatching at the YMCA. Tabbi was volunteering at City Union Mission at the time and Elise was in class at Piper High School, so neither could make it there in time. One of the newly hatched chicks couldn’t breathe because her egg membrane was covering her mouth and nose. Luckily there was a fast-thinking lifeguard who took the chick to the bathroom and washed her off, saving her life. The girls named the chick Rachel for the lifeguard who saved her.

In January, the two 10thgraders presented their project at the National 4-H Agri-Science Youth Summit in Washington, D.C. From there they applied for, and won, a $1,000 Community Action Plan Grant to start building their first upcycled chicken coop.

Phase two was all about building the coops. They started looking for free recycled and upcycled materials. They got creative with dog houses, trampoline bases, toy boxes and abandoned coops. To date, they have built, installed and donated four chicken coops.

“We gave Paw Wah Tamla, a Burmese woman who lives in the KCK food desert a coop and run, and two chickens to start her off,” Elise said. “That will be 400 – 600 eggs each year for her!”

Their goal is to install five more this fall with a phase three stretch goal of making their project duplicatable in other 4-H groups in states combating food deserts. Tabbi and her dad are designing a chicken coop kit that might make that goal more easily attainable.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the teens had planned to hold classes on raising chickens. Now they are finding ways to teach outside and online. To increase interest, the two created a YouTube channel called the Urban Chicken Whisperers. Short instructional videos cover food deserts, compare keeping chickens to having a pet dog, discuss legal issues of raising chickens in the city, show how to build a coop and offer ways to protect a flock from predators. In October, the chicken whisperers will be sharing their story in an Urban Foods Course at Kansas State University.

To learn more about getting a chicken coop or raising chickens, contact Tabbi and Elise at piperchickenwhisperers@gmail.com or watch their videos at the Urban Chicken Whisperers.

Top Photo: Elise Collins (left) and Tabbi Burt are the Urban Chicken Whisperers.

Bottom Photo: Elise Collins (left) and Gloria Burt, age 13, also a Piper 4-H club member, help with a a chicken coop raffle.