Ten years ago, Daphne Snow had to drive three hours from her home in Philadelphia, Mississippi, to buy organic vegetables. Since then, some organic produce has crept into the state through national supermarket chains, but locally grown quality options are still hard to come by. Still, Snow gets what she needs because these days she helps grow the vegetables herself.
Snow is the farm manager for Choctaw Fresh Produce, an organic farming initiative launched by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (MBCI) to increase access to healthy and affordable produce. The farm serves 11,000 members, who live in eight separate communities spread across 10 counties. Snow oversees five acres of tall tunnel greenhouses at four different certified organic farms on the reserve and, along with three of the five other Choctaw employees, grows staples like corn, beans and squash.
“Instead of fast food and junk food, we provide people with green and fresh vegetables, things they need,” says Snow, who has worked for the tribe for 20 years and is Choctaw’s only non-tribal employee. Fresh. “And what we grow is probably even better than what they grow in their backyard. Most people I know aren’t going to get rid of bugs or pull out bad plants instead of spraying. It is very difficult to find products like the ones we produce.
Grow food on reservation for reservation
Choctaw Fresh Produce’s mission has evolved over the past decade. Its founders started the grant-funded project in 2012 in hopes of creating jobs and stimulating economic growth for the tribe, which had exceptionally high unemployment and poverty rates. But after trying to sell their produce off reserve – often times away from where there was more demand for organic food – they soon realized that farming wasn’t exactly a lucrative business. Over the years, Choctaw Fresh has also struggled with a high turnover rate for growers. With travel between the four farms spread over 100 miles, sweltering temperatures in the greenhouses and strict, labor-intensive organic protocols, Snow says it’s been difficult to find people passionate enough to stay. .
“You start farming with these great ideas of all the things you can do, and it doesn’t always work out,” Snow says. “We’ve learned by trial and error since 2012 – what works, what doesn’t and how to get more product into the hands of tribes.”
These days, Choctaw Fresh Produce seeks to keep 75% of its yield on the reservation, with produce going either directly to individual tribe members or to the tribe-owned Pearl River Resort’s staff casinos, restaurants and cafeteria. (The station employs more than 2,000 people, most of whom are MBCI members.) In addition to stocking local schools, a mobile market, and programs for tribal elders and people with diabetes, Choctaw Fresh also runs a TSA (tribal supported agriculture) program analogous to CSA (community supported agriculture) initiatives elsewhere.
The move towards greater access to locally grown produce reflects the tribe’s desire to address food insecurity and improve community health. Mississippi has the highest obesity rate in the nation, at nearly 40 percent, and nearly 2,000 MBCI Membersabout 16% suffer from type 2 diabetes.
Besides their own health complications, obesity and diabetes also increase the risk of serious illness from COVID-19. At least 120 members have died from the virus since March 2020. Choctaw Fresh had already distributed its products to the tribe’s diabetes program when the pandemic hit, but it quickly stepped up its efforts, sending more than 4,000 pounds of vegetables to families in need during the first wave of the pandemic. This is an example of how local agricultural efforts can critically stimulate community resilience in times of emergency.
From the ground
The extra effort of organic farming has also paid off with environmental benefits. “A lot of this land has been farmed to death, and we want it back,” Snow says, referring to land that was previously farmed conventionally. Choctaw Fresh’s first goal was to regenerate the soil and begin the difficult three-year transition period required for certified organic farms. “Choctaw Fresh Produce gives something you can’t buy. Healthy soil needs to be done, and that’s what we’re doing right here on Tribal Lands. It is a floor that will last for generations to come.
Historically, MBCI was a tribe of farmers, and Choctaw Fresh local food coordinator Tomika Bell sees the initiative as a way to reclaim that identity. That’s why she makes sure farms grow traditional foods like blueberries, collards, squash and turnips, and why she encourages elders to share memories of when they relied on gardens to feed their families and communities. “I’m trying to bring back the old wave of how our Mississippi Choctaws lived before all these fast food joints,” says Bell, an MBCI member who is fluent in Choctaw. “We take so much pride in making sure our seniors are taken care of. They are the storytellers. They are the ones who still remember what it feels like to grow everything from scratch.
But Choctaw Fresh Produce is also looking to the future. In 2018, a $100,000 farm-to-school grant over three years helped launch an effort to provide MBCI students with weekly access to organic produce in their schools. The grant also kept cafeteria workers on the payroll during the summer months so they could help process and store seasonal produce for the upcoming school year. Bell hopes additional funding could help expand the program even further.
Choctaw Fresh also hosts on-farm workshops for school-aged children. Snow says some of the kids didn’t know where their vegetables came from and even thought the tomatoes were grown in the back of Walmart.
“We’re trying to make sure these kids have healthier eating habits,” Bell says. “If they don’t know what they’re eating and we don’t teach them, that’s where their resistance comes in.”
More broadly and across generations, Choctaw Fresh helps demystify organic and dispel common misconceptions that it is elitist and expensive. And the farmers hope their work and influence on local diets and health can one day extend beyond the reservation, becoming a catalyst for the creation of more certified organic farms in Mississippi and across the South. .
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