Geographic barriers prevent many tribes from accessing healthy and culturally-appropriate foods. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians has developed an innovative solution to help them overcome these barriers and increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables: a farmers’ market on wheels.
Nearly 10,000 tribal members reside on the Choctaw Indian Reservation, which is comprised of 35,000 acres of trust land scattered over eight communities in east-central Mississippi. Although most tribal members live near the tribe’s main headquarters, many more do not, making it difficult for them to access certain services such as the tribe’s new farmers’ market.
In 2012, the tribe established Choctaw Fresh Produce (CFP), a series of five farms that have built 15 high tunnels capable of producing thousands of pounds of chemical-free fruits and vegetables. CFP distributes these fresh fruits and vegetables to tribal members through a unique community-supported agriculture program that offers organic goods to tribal members at a low seasonal cost at a central location.
Although this central location is convenient for tribal members living near the farmers’ market, it is more challenging for tribal members who do not live near or have transportation to the market. Some tribal members are located in communities as far as 90 miles away. CFP quickly realized they needed a new and innovative way to reach out to the entire community.
In 2013, First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) awarded CFP $37,500 through the Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative (NAFSI) to purchase a vehicle and equipment to launch a mobile farmers’ market. According to John Hendrix, the mobile farmers’ market ensures that “all tribal members have access to fresh fruits and vegetables regardless of their remote location or lack of transportation.”
So far, tribal members have responded enthusiastically to the mobile market, which visits each of the tribe’s eight communities up to twice a month. Last summer, more than 1,000 customers visited the mobile farmers’ market, purchasing approximately 5,000 pounds of fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables.
Typically, CFP’s mobile farmers’ market visits tribal schools, businesses and other popular locations in the community. Last summer, they also visited the local fairgrounds to sell fresh watermelon and cucumber salads at the Annual Choctaw Indian Fair. Hendrix notes that this marked the first time that the tribe sold healthy food at the fair.
Without a doubt, CFP’s innovative mobile farmers market has helped increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables by delivering food directly to the community. However, they have also had a positive impact on the tribe’s economy by keeping spending local.
Another way that CFP is having a positive impact on the tribe’s economy is by selling their surplus fruits and vegetables to communities off the reservation. They intend to sell even more fruits and vegetables to off-reservation communities next year once they’ve finished expanding their high-tunnel farms from eight to 15 – almost doubling their production output.
CFP’s innovative farmers’market on wheel emphasizes the innovation, ingenuity and resiliency of tribes. With this grant, CFP has developed a sustainable solution to help the increase healthy food access and also overcome some of the geographic and economic barriers facing their community.
By Sarah Hernandez, First Nations Program Coordinator