May 28, 2009: The night Michael Banner’s daughter was born. He calls it the genesis.
Banner and his former partner had planned on a home birth at his mother’s house, across town. The midwife would meet them there. But things didn’t go according to plan.
The car ride took an hour and a half, and when they walked through the home’s front door, the midwife was still a couple of counties over. “We knew that was gonna’ be troublesome,” he said.
Things were starting to move quicker now. Banner paced back and forth through the living room, unsure how to make himself useful. He was the storm. His mother, Caroline Banner-Williams, was the calm.
“Mom put up a big pot of water, got some towels, and some tea. She told me to start up some Coltrane on the jazz station, “Sentimental Mood,” if I’m not mistaken,” he said. “Soon as I put that on, she started pushing.”
Now things were really moving fast. “I looked down and saw that Afro emerging.” Before he knew it, “One push and I caught her: Faatimah. She came out real fast. Eyes wide open like a baby doll.”
He laid her on her mother’s chest. He was exhilarated, exhausted. He stepped outside to collect his thoughts.
Standing on the porch of his childhood home, Banner was a new man, a dad. And, for the first time all night, he was alone—a father and 10 million thoughts.
Through the clouds, he looked up into the night sky, taking note of the moon. “‘Real luminescent,” he recalled, “Three quarters with a slice missing.” Spring was slowly rolling into summer, and it had been getting warmer over the past few weeks. This May evening, though, was a cool one.
Humbled, proud, he breathed in the gentle breeze. It smelled like shit.
Banner hadn’t noticed it when they had been racing inside, but bathed in the soft moonlight, he could see it now. Stretched before him in the yard was a mountain of compost.
The individual plants and food, decomposing further into each other with each passing day, were indiscernible. The critters, though, were not. Hundreds, if not thousands, of microscopic beings sifted through the fine, brown mass.
His mother’s friend had dropped the pile there several weeks prior. Neighbors strolling past were used to seeing mounds like this one. Each year, Caroline would spread it out across the lawn, and the next time the neighbors walked by, they’d see small buds. A few weeks later those buds would be bigger, brighter. “A plethora of plants,” he said. “Roses, crazy daisies, bee balm, petunias, rosemary, hibiscus, lamb’s ear, lavender, even one called Naked Lady.”
But summer was still weeks away. There were no flowers there, just a pile of dirt. Staring into the darkened soil, with the moon as his only witness, Banner fell to the ground.
“I was compelled, driven to the earth,” he recalled. “I sunk my hands into that dirt. It was my own little moment—nothing verbal, but I just knew—my purpose was quickened. I knew right then and there that the only way to provide for my family was gonna be through taking matters into my own hands.”
This is the story of how one man’s quest to feed his family became a fight to sustain the communities of East Winston-Salem. It’s a story of self-reliance and citizen action. A story of confinements and epiphanies. A story about food, but really, a story about everything but food.
When I ask Banner, now 48, to take me back to the beginning—back even before Faatimah and that night in the dirt—he rubs his long beard, slightly more gray on the left than the right, and pushes his thick, round glasses up his nose. He leans back into his chair, and takes a long, deep breath.
“Well, since I began in prison,” he said, “I will begin my story in prison.”
It was 1997, and a man had been loitering around outside Banner’s home talking about doing him and his family harm. “I was paranoid, felt like I had to get to him before he got to me,” he said. They had an altercation, and a gun was fired. Banner ended up with a seven-year prison sentence.
He was 21, and already had three felonies on his record. “Growing up, selling drugs, childish stuff,” he said. This was his first violent crime.
Banner’s third stint in prison, at Forsyth Correctional Center, was wholly different from his first two, due in large part to the company he took up with a small group of vegans.
To the other inmates, the vegans didn’t make a whole lot of sense. The food served to those among the general population was bad enough as it was—a hodgepodge of low-grade beef, different kinds of pork and powdery eggs. If their food was so tasteless, so colorless, they couldn’t fathom how miserable the vegans must have been.
Time and time again, they asked Banner and the other vegans: Why?
Some had health reasons. Others said eating animal products conflicted with their moral values or environmental concerns.
Banner cited the Bible. He had been reading and re-reading the tales of Daniel, Mishael, and Azariah, “stories that spoke of heights of consciousness achieved by eating special diets,” he said. He had become intrigued.
There were mental benefits, like a better ability to focus, to feel deeper, and be more sensitive—but also unintended consequences. He found the others who shunned meat “more civilized, more refined.” Their habits rubbed off on him.
Before he would spend his days ambling around the yard in frustration. Now, he engaged in more productive activities. He enrolled in mechanical engineering courses and began writing his own stories—realistic fiction, based on lived experiences.
“Just by building that discipline with my food,” he said, “it spilled over into other areas of my life.”
At breakfast, the vegans were served first. Whole wheat. Soy milk. Maybe an orange. There wasn’t much more variety when it came to their other two daily meals. The monotony was irksome, but what was really maddening was how little food they received.
Each day, the group wrestled with the question of how to procure more food. The food administrator always stood steadfast behind the inmates serving the meals, his gaze resolute. He was there to ensure everyone got the same amount: one scoop from this tub and one from that. No more. No less. Going back up to the window after cleaning your tray and asking for seconds—that wasn’t an option either.
On one morning, frustrations boiled over: “When they led us down to the chow hall and we got served our food, we slammed it right back through the trap, yelling at ‘em: ‘Quit shaking spoon on us, we need some food!’”
The administrator didn’t take kindly to the vegans’ antics. The guards were called in and the dissidents were sent to solitary confinement. This proved to be a blessing in disguise; to be released, each inmate was required to complete a grievance form.
Banner wrote that he felt he and the other vegans weren’t being given enough food, especially since they spent their days laboring out on the road squad under the sweltering North Carolina sun. The measly scoops of food put on his tray at dinner time, he explained, never sufficed in filling his stomach.
Banner was given an opportunity to meet with the food administrator to discuss his grievance. He got to walk into spaces he’d never seen, like the kitchen and the storage room, “past all the big cans of slop that they was feeding us.”
In his office, the food administrator turned his computer screen to show Banner the metrics behind the food. He still remembers the number on the screen: 2,154. That was how many calories each inmate was supposed to be served each day.
The administrator said this number was beyond his control, determined by the state of North Carolina. It was slightly more than what was allotted for a middle schooler, and slightly less than what was allotted for a high schooler. “And he said you had to clean your tray to get that amount of calories. That 2,154 included all the ketchup, all the mustard, too.”
“I didn’t know how to beat that,” Banner said. “So, when I came out of prison, I was thinking a lot about food.”
When Banner was released in 2003, he quickly realized his vegan lifestyle was going to be harder to maintain in East Winston than it had been in prison. He added dairy products back into his diet.
It was a surrender in one sense, but a respite in another. Now he could enjoy his mother’s homemade macaroni and cheese, a favorite among Banner and his brothers, Lawrence and Christopher, when they were young.
Ensuring there was enough food on the table had always fallen on his mother’s shoulders because his father, even when he was in the picture, wasn’t around much. He had once been a master composer, writing symphonies by day and coming home at night to teach his sons how to play every instrument imaginable. Banner said he got caught up in the crack epidemic, and that his absence fractured the family.
His mother hopped jobs a lot: worked at Head Start, sold cars, ran her own temporary employment agency, composed jingles for commercials, sold chicken dinners door-to-door and even wrote biographical and realistic fantasy books on commission.
But she always made sure her three boys were eating right. Pots of spaghetti, mashed potatoes, chicken and dumplings, Salisbury steak, liver, pork chops, sun tea. Burgers and homemade fries were another favorite, and she spiced it up with whatever herbs she had potted outside or around the house.
While the burgers don’t fit into Banner’s vegetarian lifestyle anymore, he’ll cook up fries for his own children following mom’s recipe. He, too, pulls the herbs from the pots in his front yard. Fresh potatoes, though, are much more difficult to come by in East Winston.
Banner can remember a time when mom-and-pop shops dotted each street corner, selling everything from bars of soap and detergent to sewing machines, cold medicine, molasses, and sunglasses.
Back in those days, he’d stop at one of those stores on his way home from school. He and his friends would clamor over cold colas and ice cream. If they were hungry for something more, they had their pick of southern comfort foods, cooked either in the back room or right next door: fried tomatoes, slaw, hot biscuits slathered in even hotter gravy, and hush puppies. And for dessert, there was pecan pie. The kids would sit together on the stoop, feasting.
One store did it better than the rest. Alicia’s Grocery, located at 1701 North Liberty Street was owned and operated by Louis Morris Jr. At his shop, Verdie—as he was known by those around his block—sold all the essentials and then some. He also owned a nearby restaurant, Verdie’s Grill. The residents of North Liberty Street appreciated knowing the man behind the counter. Mr. Verdie knew all their first names, too, and his investment in the neighborhood was palpable. After all, he lived right down the street.
Today, Mr. Verdie’s shop is abandoned. Gas station convenience stores and fast-food chains have moved into the neighborhood instead. There’s very little fresh food available in East Winston.
On many days, Banner found himself resorting to highly processed foods to fill his stomach. On the other side of town, though, were gigantic grocery stores. Fluorescent lights illuminated shelf after shelf of produce, stocked to the brim with fruits and vegetables, much of which was labeled organic and locally sourced.
But Banner didn’t have the money to travel back and forth across town just to shop, much less to buy the organic food there.
“It made me feel like I was still in prison,” he said. “Like this concrete jungle in this concrete habitat really isn’t so different than a prison cell in a prison compound.”
Banner decided if he couldn’t buy food, he would grow it.
He had been experimenting with gardening in his own yard for several years, but didn’t have much to show for his efforts because the tall trees on the property next door blocked out much of the sun.
He began studying farming techniques, learning about how much sunlight different crops needed, and what kinds of soil and cultivation methods would produce the most bountiful harvests. His engineering studies also went a long way in getting the most out of the available resources.
The more Banner learned, the more he realized he was going to need more space.
He searched the neighborhood for space to expand, and found exactly what he was looking for a few streets over: an abandoned lot, about a third of an acre in size. The home that once stood there had been torn down, and nature was slowly taking back over.
The specific details of when and why the plot had been abandoned, Banner wasn’t entirely sure of. The explanation was probably unspectacular, involving a tenant who had moved out or an absentee landlord. In the Black communities of East Winston, these stories were largely the same. Searching for answers would take time, and there were more pressing matters to take care of, like organizing “the guerillas.”
The group was so named because they were growing crops on land that they didn’t have the legal rights to cultivate on.
At first, the guerillas were met with a mixture of intrigue and skepticism. Those living on the surrounding streets peered curiously through their windows as they lumbered past, arms full of shovels, rakes, scoops, and trowels.
“I know they had a lot of doubts when they saw us coming through,” Banner said. “They didn’t think that we would continue with it.”
But they did, clearing the land, priming the soil, and preparing the beds. Soon, the lot had been transformed into a farm.
“Patience, patience, patience. It’s something we say to each other every day,” Banner explained. “Slowly, people started to see the plants grow, see us coming in and harvesting … People started taking us more seriously.”
By the time summer rolled into fall, the guerilla farmers had already completed several harvests. The growing season had nearly concluded, and the final batch of crops would be ready in just a few days.
Banner had been looking forward to one in particular: his cauliflower.
“The neighbors were always asking, ‘What you got there? Cabbage? Collard greens?’ I would take them out to show them—open up those nice rolls, always looking real pearly,” he said.
The attention the cauliflower demanded was unrivaled. He spent hours with each plant, meticulously working twine around the individual leaves to ensure they were sheltered from the sun. Cauliflower, he had read, was a delicate crop—not enough light and it won’t sprout, too much light and it quickly turns a sickly brown.
The work was painstaking, but the appeal of sharing a bowl of homemade cauliflower soup with his family on Thanksgiving was enough to merit all those hours and then some.
Several days before the holiday, he went out to harvest the cauliflower, only to find that it had all been mowed over. “We had plans for that food,” Banner said, to this day struggling to make sense of why anyone would rip good produce from the Earth.
As vexing as it was, the uprooting opened Banner’s eyes to the need to formalize what he was doing so this wouldn’t happen again. The guerillas would need to figure out a way to buy the land.
Banner teamed up with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension’s Forsyth County Center, an arm of N.C. State University, to explore public options for supporting their work. Together, they developed a plan to promote urban agriculture that they brought to Winston-Salem’s city council.
In May 2015, their efforts were validated when the council adopted the Urban Agriculture Ordinance. One of the key components Banner and his comrades pushed for was a process by which residents could obtain urban-farming permits. Obtaining a permit wasn’t necessary for starting a community garden, but it would offer protection for city residents who were farming on land they did not own.
Improving food access in the community had long been a grassroots fight, and so the ordinance was widely viewed as a progressive step. But obtaining that permit involved presentations and approvals from multiple city departments—including zoning and planning, submitting scaled drawings of proposed plans, and purchasing insurance should someone injure themselves on that property (which could cost upwards of a thousand dollars per year).
For prospective gardeners, the process of obtaining the permit was also fairly opaque: “a whole escapade,” as Banner put it. Nonetheless, after more than a year’s worth of back-and-forth with the city, his permit application was one of the first the city approved.
“It was all very new for city governments [to be] taking ownership and doing this work,” said Tiffany Olivia, the former food resilience program manager of Winston-Salem, and current program and fiscal recovery manager of Guilford County.
When Olivia started as the food resilience program manager in 2020, she estimates there were only about five city governments across the state that had a position like hers. Today, that number is more like 20. Across the state, they are developing different features of food programming and nutritional education.
In Winston-Salem, the resilience program manager also serves as a liaison between the city government and the urban food policy council—a group of citizens dedicated to promoting food access within the city. Banner served as the council’s inaugural chair when the organization was formed back in 2017.
“It’s not perfect and there are definitely improvements to be made,” Olivia said. “We can make incremental changes, but these things take time. You can’t take down the whole system overnight.”
The city’s current food resilience program manager, Moriah Gendy, is working with the Urban Food Policy Council and the city’s planning and permitting departments to make the permit approval process more transparent. “A lot of people still don’t know they have access to this as a resource,” Gendy said.
It’s another incremental step in the right direction, but there’s still a lot of things to improve, even after seven years.
“The ordinance didn’t translate into more equity and didn’t nudge us towards closing the gap on food disparity,” Banner said. “We’re still at a great deficit in all those aspects, and we can’t depend on other people to do the best thing for us. We’ve gotta be able to do for ourselves.”
Over time, the story of how the guerillas had transformed the abandoned plot into a productive space spread further and further. And in East Winston, where there is no shortage of abandoned lots, more residents began approaching Banner about bringing the work to their street.
Such an outpouring of support—welcomed, but also overwhelming—was undeniable proof of the need. But the ordinance wasn’t going to be enough. Banner and the guerillas would have to figure out how to secure—and even more importantly, protect—more plots of land, and the people to till it.
They worried spreading themselves too thin would do more harm than good, and they had only so much time to commit. This whole gardening business was a side-hustle, and they had jobs to work, often more than one, and families to feed.
“Those populations that we can affect the most,” Banner explained, “they can’t pay us.”
In late 2020, another birth changed Banner’s life: his organization, Island CultureZ, obtained official nonprofit status. Now the guerillas could use philanthropic funds to get urban farms up and running across the city.
Banner said he landed on the name because “we feel like we’re surrounded by water, apart from the progression of the city.” At the same time, “we’re trying to make our community a destination, a place to be reached.”
The nonprofit’s mission is simple: Return healthy food to East Winston. “The folks that are living around here have very little access to nutritious food,” said Scott Best, the executive director of HOPE Winston-Salem, an organization that works to provide healthy food to the youth of Forsyth County. “I could walk in any direction for an hour, and Bojangles would still be the closest place to buy any food in this neighborhood.”
Neighborhoods like this used to be known as “food deserts.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines such regions as those where one in three people live more than one mile from the nearest grocery store, and the poverty rate is greater than or equal to 20 percent.
By that definition, all of Forsyth County is practically one big food desert. In 2015, the Food Research & Action Center declared Winston-Salem the 14th-worst area in the entire nation for “families with children reporting food insecurity.”
Food justice leaders prefer a different term, one Bronx activist Karen Washington coined: “food apartheid.” It’s not that residents have no access to food, but that most of what they do have access to is junk.
Washington, who has a long history of operating urban farms in New York, says the name “brings systemic racism into the conversation [by highlighting] that these conditions are not naturally occurring.”
“Diabetes is a huge problem, hypertension is a huge problem,” Best said. “It’s not magic, though. There’s clear ties between the zip code, the color of your skin and health outcomes.”
The answer to food insecurity in Winston-Salem, however, isn’t building 18 more grocery stores. It doesn’t matter how many markets there are if people can’t afford to shop at them, said Dr. Julian Agyeman, a professor of urban policy and planning at Tufts University.
“When you’ve got $20 to spend on food, and you’ve got five kids to feed, what are you going to do?” said Agyeman. “You can feed kids on Big Macs. You can’t feed kids on fucking arugula.”
Undoing decades of systemic racism will take decades, and Banner’s not content to sit around and wait.
“We have to be the ones shifting the power back into the hands of the community,” Washington said. “Waiting for the person on the white horse to help us, to save us—that’s not going to work.”
“People like Michael—we call them fire souls,” Agyeman said. “They’re from the community and they’ve got a fire in their soul. They want to make change, and nothing’s going to stop them from doing it.”
Today Island CultureZ operates four urban farms in East Winston. There are also a smattering of spin-off projects across the city that Banner and the guerillas started and community residents have continued.
One such location is the Kimberley Park Community Garden, which Rosa Johnson, a niece of the late poet Maya Angelou, organizes and operates.
Banner remembers seeing Johnson peering through the fence when he and his children started plotting the garden. She seemed to be there as often as they were, asking questions and making herself useful however she could. Now she’s taken over.
And really, that’s the goal: building self-resilience in a community that, for too long, has had to depend too heavily upon Band-aids like food banks or Meals on Wheels. Island CultureZ is doing something entirely different, giving residents the knowledge and the skills to take matters into their own hands.
“It’s almost had a domino effect,” Johnson said in a 2021 interview. “My community is able to see that someone cares enough to try to make a difference … then someone else maybe will come behind me and do the same thing and upgrade this community.”
“What Michael’s working on is very important,” Best said. “There’s a huge difference between a bunch of volunteers driving to a neighborhood and giving away free food versus people in that neighborhood being able to provide for themselves.”
As Agyeman puts it: “That’s food justice.”
October 17th, 2021: The sun, slowly setting through the pink-streaked sky, gives the night a bittersweet tint. The sentiment is echoed here in the heart of East Winston on the last night of the fall growing season for the Liberty Street Farmer’s Market.
To the left of the market is Gilmore’s Memorial Chapel, a large brick building with stained glass windows and a white spire pointing to the sky. The next lot over is the abandoned building that used to house Mr. Verdie’s grocery, where neighborhood kids would get slices of pecan pie and hush puppies on their way home from school.
In the distance, a large billboard reads, “Times are tough, but so are you.” Across the street, a red KFC sign stands out against the Winston-Salem skyline.
The smell of kettle corn wafts through the air. Banner’s youngest child, Sabali, sits on his lap, crunching on a bright red apple as his father talks. Born in 2019, his name means “patience” in the Bambara language, spoken in West African countries.
Olivia’s here, too. As food resilience manager, she was not only responsible for overseeing the week-to-week operations of the Liberty Street market and other programs designed to increase food access, but also for considering how these initiatives would fit into the bigger picture.
“The food access problem is connected to other systemic issues like redlining and unemployment,” Olivia said, “but we want to break that down into things we can tackle in the here and now.
“By adding nutritional value to our community, Michael and our other urban farmers are enabling people to do well in school, to do well at work, to live long and healthy lives,” she said. “We’re growing from those assets within our community.”
The weather had recently gotten cooler. Most of the crops that grow in North Carolina had already been harvested, but during peak season there are about a dozen vendors selling everything from peppers, tomatoes, zucchinis, and squash to hemp, lotion, and art.
Liberty Street Market is hyper-local, Banner said, meaning vendors grow the produce within a five-mile radius. All of the vendors here are people of color, as are most shoppers. Many of those patrons pay via the Supplemental Nutrition Program’s EBT card, often called food stamps.
“A lot of the time, people look at communities like ours through that poverty lens, but we’re changing the narrative,” Banner said. “Now, you walk through, and you start seeing useful land, you start seeing farmer’s markets. That changes people’s perspectives.”
“Yeah, we’re an embattled community, but we’ve been resilient,” he added. “It may look bleak in the beginning, there might be a lot of hardships associated with it, but if you can remain patient, it’s a worthy struggle—there’ll be a beautiful surprise in the end for you.
Will Zimmerman is a senior at Wake Forest University pursuing an interdisciplinary degree in film and journalism. He is interested in narrative and documentary storytelling across written and visual mediums, which he has explored in both Winston-Salem and in his home state of New York.