When Timothy Masters got his first chickens a decade ago, it was easy. He lives "way out in the country" in Pennsylvania, away from urban regulations about keeping chickens in backyards. He built a chicken coop and got three hens to provide eggs for him and his wife. "It was the perfect number for us," he says.
That's when the catalogs began to arrive.
"I started getting these chicken catalogs, and they'd show these photos of glorious chickens in every size and color," Masters says. He wished he could have one of each. It wasn't long before his reasonable flock of three had ballooned to 23, not an uncommon phenomenon among chicken keepers.
Historically, most people who owned hens did so for the purpose of selling eggs. Today, many backyard chicken keepers are thinking less about the business of raising chickens or the cost of feed and a coop. For these owners, the birds become part pet and part collection — you just have to have them all — which comes with predictable consequences: "We were just overwhelmed with eggs," Masters says.
Then he remembered the food pantry just down the road. By the end of the year, when the pantry gave him a receipt to write off his donations, he was shocked to discover he'd given away 400 dozen eggs.
While selling eggs from a backyard flock has long been an extra source of income, today's chicken keepers often don't have commerce in mind when ordering their spring chicks. Many want just enough eggs for their family and wind up giving the rest away to neighbors or friends. Increasingly people — seduced by the same hatchery catalogs as Masters or photos of spectacular chickens on Instagram — are getting chickens just to have more chickens. The eggs are a bonus. That is, until people run out of ways to get rid of them.
Chicken message boards are full of people asking whether they can legally donate eggs or whether they might get sued if there's a food-safety issue. Though laws vary by state, and while every food pantry, shelter and soup kitchen has its own list of foods it accepts for donation, many hunger-relief programs are happy to be able to receive farm-fresh eggs and give those eggs to their patrons. Thanks to the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996, as long as items are donated in good faith and without prior knowledge that the food might make someone sick, donors can't be held liable.
"The neighbors run when they see me coming down the road with a carton of eggs," says Jo-Ann Monconduit, who lives in New Orleans. While she, her husband and their three dogs love eggs, her flock of six produces more than the family can handle. Local food pantries she called didn't want backyard eggs (some pantries require farmers to have certification or commercial grading and washing facilities), but she discovered a local nonprofit day care and volunteer fire station that were happy to get free egg deliveries.
"People just love the eggs, and they taste so good," she says. Monconduit's flock lays white, brown and blue eggs, which can make them feel different from store-bought eggs even before the shells are cracked.
"Other than organic, backyard-grown produce, eggs are one of my favorite things people donate," says Shirley Moss, volunteer manager at the Port Townsend Food Bank in Washington state. "It's so superior to a normal egg," she adds, referring to the conventionally produced variety they might get from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "The yolks are firm and bright."
"I do have clients who ask for fresh eggs," says Jennifer Thatcher at the Hunger Prevention Council of Pierce County, Wis. Three or four farmers regularly donate eggs to the pantry, "though it depends on how well chickens are laying," she says. The pantry requires that the eggs are clean and have the date they were "picked" clearly displayed.
Pantries don't have the time or resources to do community outreach, asking people to bring in extra eggs. In Austin, Texas, eggs from backyard chickens aren't a commonly donated item at the Hope Food Pantry. "What's common is people's good intentions," says Executive Director Stephanie Humphreys. Many people express an interest in donating eggs, then either never do or taper off after a couple of dozen. All people have to do is bring them in, Humphreys says. "We'd even supply the egg cartons if it was something they don't have." Many pantries collect egg cartons — since they purchase commercial eggs on large pallets and not in easy-to-distribute dozen or half-dozen containers.
While some people who come to the food bank don't care what type of eggs they're getting, others will ask if any organic eggs are in stock. "Even though people are getting free food, they're still particular — especially parents," Moss says.
"I'd often heard people talk about how homegrown eggs are so much better tasting than store eggs, but I'd never thought much about it," says Masters, who hadn't eaten eggs that didn't come from his own flock for a decade. "One day I ate breakfast at a restaurant and had their eggs. They tasted like plastic."
Masters, like so many, has been enchanted by chickens and overrun with eggs that are simply too delicious not to give away.
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Ore.