By Susan Marquez
In a state where food deserts, diabetes and obesity are prevalent, a group of people is working to turn those problems and more around in a positive and healthy way. Choctaw Fresh Produce was designed to improve the community in a self-sustaining way. The program has proven to be a major component of both improved health and economic security for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.
As one of the United States’ original first nations, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians is the only federally recognized American Indian Tribe in Mississippi, with close to 11,000 members. Recognizing that the best way to thrive and remain self-sufficient is to succeed economically, Choctaw Fresh Produce checks all the boxes.
The farm is based in Choctaw, Mississippi: an area that provides ideal weather for longer growing seasons and greater yields, allowing the organization to specialize in direct store delivery throughout Central Mississippi to a broad variety of organic-focused food buyers. From grocers to casinos, schools and restaurants, Choctaw Fresh Produce provides fresh, organic produce nearly year-round due to the use of high tunnel greenhouses. In the high tunnels, vegetables grown exceed production in less space. The use of technology, including fans, automatic shutters, pre-wired thermostats and vented heaters assure growing success by controlling temperature, keeping out disease and saving water.
John Hendrix serves as the Director of Economic Development for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. Since the growing operation started, he has gone from being a backyard gardener to a serious proponent of large-scale organic gardening. “I’ve seen what access to fresh produce can do for a community,” he says. “We don’t have statistics, but our hopeful outcome is a healthier population.” The tribe offers produce boxes to those with diabetes, the elderly and a food program for those with low income to get more nutritious food to at-risk groups. Grown on a three-acre organic farm on reservation land, Choctaw Fresh puts more nutritious food in areas where it has not always been accessible.
It started with a phone call John received from the food and beverage manager of their casino. “He had food shipped in from all over the country. I learned that the tribe was importing nearly one hundred percent of its food. Most people had forgotten what a good quality tomato tastes like,” John explains. “That’s when we took a serious look at growing our own food here on tribal lands.”
The farming project not only addressed the need to have locally grown produce but has also created employment opportunities. “It is a win-win solution,” says John. As the farming program grew, visits for elementary school students began, which got the students excited about eating vegetables. A Food Ambassador program was created, introducing young people to agriculture as a healthy, alternative career path to manufacturing or hospitality.
“This absolutely benefits the health of the community,” says John. “It gets kids re-engaged and excited about the local food system and eating healthier; that spills over to multiple generations, from kids to elders.”