Residents of Chicago’s West Side were invited to find out more about urban gardening during the 1st District Urban Agriculture Expo. The Nov. 14 event was organized by Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin (1st) and the Allison United Foundation for Better Living, 4540 W. Washington Ave., where it was held.

Anthony Beckman, Boykin’s outreach coordinator, said the event was just one of many events Boykin hopes to organize to promote urban farming on the West Side. Beckman noted that the commissioner believes the event would encourage physical fitness, improve the quality of food available in the community and increase job opportunities.

He also said Boykin hopes the event advances policy initiatives that would grow urban farming opportunities throughout the South and West Sides — areas that are historically barren when it comes to places that sell fresh fruit and vegetables.

“If we can train our young people to eat better, to eat more vegetables and fruits, we can change that,” said Beckman. “We think it’s a good endeavor.”

Beckman also noted the event might increase awareness about job opportunities, especially for residents who have just left prison and have trouble finding jobs.

“Urban agriculture organizations are more likely to hire ex-offenders than any other [businesses],” said Beckman, adding that the Cook County Jail currently has a program that trains inmates to become urban farmers.

“[Once they are released], they have the experience to get a job and an opportunity to start their own career,” he said.

Among the organizations in attendance at the expo were the Garfield Park Community Garden, the West Humboldt Park-based Metropolitan Farms, the NeighborSpace community garden network and the West Side Bee Boyz beekeeping supplier. 

Westside Bee Boyz, which was founded last November, was one of the newer organizations at the expo. The two beekeepers who created the organization — John Hansen and Thad Smith — said they wanted to do something to help the West Side and to fill a niche role in a market that desperately needs their unique skills.

“Chicago is the third-largest market and with the growth of urban beekeeping, we’re hoping to feed the need,” he said.

Hansen and Smith, along with Naaman Gambill—who previously worked as the head beekeeper at the Garfield Park Conservatory before joining up as a co-owner in April — set out to both raise bees and build beekeeping supplied for beekeepers throughout the Chicago area. Currently, according to Gambill, Chicago beekeepers have to order supplies from places outside of the state.

The supplies would be built on the site of the organization’s future North Lawndale location, which would be staffed by local residents, they said. The North Lawndale site, which would be at Roosevelt Road and Homan Ave., is scheduled to open before the end of the month. 

“We are encouraging economic empowerment,” he said. “It’s more than keeping bees. It’s teaching carpenter skills. A skilled carpenter earns $15 an hour. That’s economic empowerment.”

Gambill said the co-owners made a point of purchasing the building rather than renting space — a signal of their deep commitment to the community.

“We are committed to the area,” Gambill said. “We want to be as inclusive as possible.”

Gambill also noted the Westside Bee Boyz are also planning to launch programs for area kids and have recently applied to take part in the Lights On Afterschool program. He also indicated that they reached out to Ald Michael Scott (24th) and several North Lawndale organizations “to make the area [residents] conscious of the opportunities beekeeping can provide.”