MICHAEL HILL

Associated Press

Chickens finally can roost legally in Bozeman, Mont.

And it's thanks largely to a group of food-minded locals calling itself the Community Led Urban Chicken movement -- that's right, CLUC -- that persuaded city officials to lift restrictions on the increasingly popular practice of keeping backyard birds for eggs or meat.

Such encounters between so-called locavores (people who strive to eat locally produced foods) and bureaucrats are increasingly common as more people try to bring a taste of the farm to the city.

As the popularity of eating local has moved from the high-end restaurant scene to the mainstream, local food has become a priority issue for more mayors, city planners and zoning officials who must make decisions about everything from chicken coops and farmers markets to more expansive policies designed to boost consumption of fresh food.

"All across the country, city officials are beginning to realize that the food system isn't merely like other businesses -- office supplies or electronics," said Nevin Cohen, an assistant professor of urban studies at The New School in New York City. "Food is something different that affects cities in a different way. So there's a role for government in figuring out how to get the food system right for a city."

Local food is a tiny part of the overall U.S. food market, but it's growing fast as consumers become more discerning about the quality of their food and where it comes from. The market research firm Packaged Facts estimates demand for local food will grow to $7 billion in 2011, up from around $4 billion in 2002.

Americans' growing taste for local food is most apparent in the farmers markets sprouting up nationwide like corn stalks in summer. The 4,900 farmers markets counted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is double the number tallied in 1996.

But even something as benign-sounding as a place for local farmers to sell lettuce and apples can pose zoning or planning issues. Markets need variances if they're to be set up in noncommercial areas. Impacts on the neighborhoods need to be considered: Are there enough parking spaces? Will unsold vegetables will be left to rot on the curb? Will it be too noisy?

"People think it's going to be a two-week process, and it ends up being a six-month process," said Rob Sentner, a member of the local planning commission and open space committee in Upper Milford, Pa., near Allentown.

Sentner said behind-the-scenes work for a market in Upper Milford included tweaking local regulations to define what a farmers market is and demonstrating that it met state health and agricultural standards.

It's not any easier in bigger cites. Los Angeles Councilwoman Jan Perry, who has helped land four farmers markets in her district, said it takes tenacity and working around logistical issues. She recently helped launch Los Angeles' Food Policy Task Force, which will take a more systemic approach to bringing local produce across the city.

Those kinds of citywide efforts, many aimed at fighting obesity among poor people, are becoming common. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom in July issued the city's first comprehensive food policy, which places an emphasis on regional food. New York City's Planning Commission in September approved a proposal to offer tax incentives to land more grocery stores that devote shelf space to fresh produce, meats and dairy.

Kimberley Hodgson, manager of the American Planning Association's Planning and Community Health Research Center, said more municipalities are starting to consider plans that take into account whole regions -- city and country -- as they consider the entire food chain from production to disposal.

"This is the new trend because planners are realizing that there is such an urban-rural linkage to the food system," Hodgson said. "So to just focus on the city or county food system really ignores the other parts of the system."

This is not always simple. Local officials sometimes must balance the desire for fresh food with the nuisance factor. New York City officials asked to legalize bee keeping within the city limits this year were essentially being asked to favor urban beekeepers and local honey lovers over residents who fear getting stung.

Then there is the chicken issue. It's illegal in many cities because of the noise and the mess. But with more people agitating to raise chickens in their back yards, a lot of municipal officials are rethinking their laws.

"People came up and said, 'Hey we like the idea of knowing where our food comes from. We like the idea of having a sustainable food source in our back yard,'" said Brit Fontenot, assistant to the Bozeman city manager. "'Why can't we look at removing this restriction?'"

Chapel Hill in North Carolina gave the OK to chicken keeping earlier this year, as did Buffalo, N.Y. The Iowa City Council is considering a backyard chicken ordinance, and officials in Washington -- which in September opened a new farmers market just blocks from the White House -- are considering easing restrictions on raising chickens within 50 feet of homes, which would allow more residents to raise the birds.

But officials in some other towns have balked. The Denver Suburb of Aurora, Colo., declined to allow it in June. Aurora Neighborhood Support Division manager Ron Moore said given factors like noise and sanitary concerns, city council member simply saw little reason to change the law.

In Bozeman, chicken keeping can officially commence on Oct. 29. CLUC organizer Alison Sweeney said she can't wait to move her chicks from a friend's house to within the city limits.

"I'm so excited," she said. "They're so precious."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Recommended for you