For five years, Michael Banner and Marcus Hill have been chipping away at food insecurity in East Winston, eventually forming a nonprofit, Island CultureZ, that aims to increase land and market access for economically marginalized communities, concentrating on urban gardens, more accessible farmers’ markets and other strategies. It is crucial work in East Winston, which has a high number of food deserts.
The innovative work of Island CultureZ fits with Winston-Salem State University’s Center for the Study of Economic Mobility (CSEM), which encourages upward economic mobility. CSEM presented Island CultureZ with an Economic Mobility Award that includes a stipend to help the group continue its work, and named Banner, the group’s executive director, a CSEM community scholar.
“This is definitely helpful,” Banner said. “Ours is really an organization that organically grew out of the food disparity in East Winston. Our organization is building a community-based economy, providing a model other communities can aspire to. We envision a thriving network of synergetic communities — a matrix of ‘islands' — working in innovative, research-based, community-led ways toward healthy, equitable local economies.”
In response to the pandemic, Island CultureZ has partnered with its community to donate food to residents in need. But long term, Banner and Hill envision a different strategy. Hill, a health care professional, said that when people talk about food insecurity, “they tend to talk charity, where they can drop something off. We want to build up our structure to where we are not dependent on the charity model.”
Banner, who pulled time in prison for a felonious assault and was released 17 years ago, has found redemption through the nonprofit. It began with what Banner called “guerrilla gardening,” cleaning up abandoned lots that had been used as dumping grounds and “dropping our plants.” They got some pushback from landowners, he said, but eventually worked with them and city officials to gain access to the land for gardening. Banner and Hill began to explore other strategies to battle food insecurity. They networked across the community.
Alvin Atkinson, CSEM’s associate director, serves on the board of Neighbors for Better Neighborhoods with Banner, and heard about Island CultureZ from Banner. Atkinson learned more about the group, and realized it would be ideal for an Economic Mobility Award. Those awards aim to accelerate the building of pathways to economic mobility in areas including health and well-being, which fits the model of Island CultureZ. The nonprofit also fits CSEM’s goal of getting more WSSU students involved in economic mobility: It is planning an agricultural education program for students, who can intern with Island CultureZ.
Banner wrote in a grant application to The Winston-Salem Foundation that “Island CultureZ is born out of the organizers’ passion for urban agriculture and their recognition of the need for equitable and self-sustaining local economies. In order to cultivate such economies and utilize the economic potential for urban food production, communities must be able to access existing food economies and to create new ones. Island CultureZ envisions a thriving network of synergetic communities working in innovative, research-based ways to foster self-reliance among Winston-Salem residents as they work in unison to overcome poverty and oppression.”
The group is working with about 20 community residents, the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service and the Forsyth County Health Department and helps with several food gardens in East Winston. With the extension service and other partners, Island CultureZ helped establish an Urban Farm School, teaching residents how to grow their food and sell some of it at farmers’ markets. The nonprofit operated a cultural center to tell residents about its mission; is working toward farmers markets with SNAP/EBT access and a purchasing incentives program; and an Urban Farmer Cooperative, “a member-/farmer-owned business that shares resources across membership and creates market opportunities (brokering retail partners, marketing product, securing ‘preferred vendor’ status, creating new markets throughout the community.”
They have been slowed but not stopped by the pandemic.
Banner and Hill are constantly brainstorming on strategies for carrying out the work of Island CultureZ. “What’s possible?” Hill asked. "What can we do?”
With much good work already done, they are making their mark in the battle against food insecurity.
John Railey (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the writer-in-residence for CSEM, www.wssu.edu/csem.