Choctaw Fresh Produce provides assistance during COVID-19

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Local Food Coordinator Tomika Bell harvests tomatoes from the high tunnels at Choctaw Fresh Produce.

Choctaw Fresh Produce has stepped up to serve the community during the COVID-19 pandemic by delivering over 4,000 pounds of organic produce to Tribal members who were in quarantine.

From May through July, the certified organic farm, which typically sells its produce primarily to the Pearl River Resort, instead provided food free-of-charge to Tribal members sheltering at home.

"We normally sell our produce to the resort for use in its various restaurants as well as the employee dining room," said Daphne Snow, farm manager in a news release. "When the resort closed in March, we were faced with the question of what to do with our vegetables as we began harvesting from the high tunnels where we grow our food."

As the coronavirus began to spread quickly throughout the Tribe, Choctaw Fresh Produce developed a plan to provide free food to those people quarantining in their homes. The organization worked with the Tribal administration, which purchased the produce at a reduced price, and with Choctaw Public Health which delivered the boxes to homes in the community. Choctaw Fresh Produce harvested the vegetables and boxed them for delivery.

In addition to providing over 400 boxes of produce for people in the community, Choctaw Fresh Produce also opened the farm on four separate days for "U-Pick Harvesting," during which Tribal members were allowed to bring containers to the farms and pick the vegetables themselves. The fresh vegetables included tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, bell peppers, hot peppers, snap beans, lima beans, and tomato berries.

"The U-Pick Harvests were a chance for us to clear out the vegetables from our tunnels at the end of the season, and also provide free food for any Tribal members who wanted to participate," said Tomika Bell, local food coordinator. "It was exciting to see parents bring their children to the farms and let them experience the workings of an organic farm. We only allowed five people in at a time, and masks were required in order to keep everyone safe."

Choctaw Fresh Produce was developed in 2012 with the intention of providing jobs for Tribal members and making the Tribe more self-sufficient. Today it encompasses farms in four Choctaw communities - Pearl River, Tucker, Conehatta, and Bogue Chitto. Each one is a certified organic farm by the USDA. As a certified organic farm, they use no synthetic chemicals or fertilizer on any of their produce.

In addition, the farms are USDA GAP certified, which is a further certification that allows the produce to be sold to entities such as schools and grocery stores. Snow says that stringent standards have to be followed in order to keep the certified organic label.

"It's a challenge, but it's a good challenge," she says. "We are able to offer our members food that is healthier and certainly fresher than conventional produce they would buy in the grocery store. Our average time from harvest to table is less than three days."

As one of the United States' original first nations, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians is the only federally recognized American Indian tribe living within the State of Mississippi. With over 11,000 members, Choctaw lands cover over 35,000 acres in 10 counties. Providing permanent, full-time jobs for over 5,000 Tribal-member and non-Indian employees, the Tribe is a major contributor to the state's economy.

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