Tribal Public Information Department employee MeShay Jimmie tours Choctaw Fresh Produce’s operation with Choctaw Fresh Produce Supervisor Jason Grisham. (Courtesy Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians)
This article originally appeared in the June 2019 “Tourism, Agriculture & Natural Resources” print edition of Native Business Magazine.
Food serves as more than just sustenance — it forms a cultural foundation. As Tribes across North America seek opportunities that increase sovereignty, agriculture has emerged as a viable investment.
Started in 2012, Choctaw Fresh Produce aims to decrease the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indian’s reliance on shipping food thousands of miles to reach its commercial kitchens. Today, the program provides fresh fruit and vegetables to the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians’ enterprises, Tribal citizens as well as the public through local farmer’s markets, mobile markets and subscription services.
“When we were growing up, we were very dependent upon what we grew in our own garden,” explained Choctaw Fresh Produce Supervisor Jason Grisham. “Produce that we grew out of our gardens was probably on our tables every night, and we don’t see that nowadays. Everyone’s gotten in a hurry.”
As a citizen of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, Grisham does not take his role with the enterprise lightly. He oversees all Choctaw Fresh Produce operations, which includes five gardens and six employees. Through his work, he hopes to encourage fellow Tribal members to slow down and reconnect to their food systems.
“We’re bringing it back, especially [for] our younger generations. [We’re] teaching them where a tomato comes from … that they can grow it on their own and eat from their own garden,” Grisham said.
The enterprise, initially formed through the Nation’s economic development department, not only saves money and decreases the Tribe’s environmental impact, but Choctaw Fresh Produce has created a sense of community within the reservation, connecting Tribal citizens back to their roots.
The rural nature of the Choctaw Indian Reservation, which includes eight communities and 35,000 acres of land covering a 10-county radius, can influence employment opportunities and food access.
“It’s getting harder and harder for some of our Tribal members to find jobs, so the farming aspect has enabled us to hire some Tribal members, put them to work, and gives them an opportunity to gain income for their family,” Grisham said.
Choctaw Fresh Produce utilizes nearly 20 high tunnels across the five gardens to grow its fruits and vegetables. High tunnels, or hoop houses, are similar to greenhouses and utilize solar heat to extend the growing season.
The gardens located throughout the reservation also help reintroduce the Tribe’s values of family and caring for one another.
“I can grow a ton of produce, which would be way more than what I would need at any time, but having that much more produce available means I can spread it out to other people that could use it,” Grisham explained.
Grisham and his staff strive to increase the health and wellness of all Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indian citizens. Choctaw Fresh Produce shares its harvest with the Tribe’s diabetes program and delivers to the elderly center. Mobile markets, employee kiosks and weekly box subscriptions provide additional opportunities.
“Our mission is to get it out to as many people as we can and go above and beyond the resorts and those that we already service, but overall, it’s just taking care of our Tribal members,” Grisham said.
With the help of skilled nutritionists, staff create healthy meal preparation guidelines to instruct Tribal citizens on new ways to prepare dishes. They also lead tours, offering Choctaw youth the chance to try a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, often for the first time.
Choctaw Fresh Produce plans include extending garden programming into the local schools and expanding community involvement with the growing process.
“The social impact and cultural impact, that’s one of our biggest highlights,” Grisham shared. “Knowing that we’re doing this on our Tribal lands once again — growing here — it’s huge.”