Throughout southern Mississippi, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians’ Phillip M’s in the Silver Star Hotel & Casino is regarded as one of the region’s best fine-dining restaurants. Since 2012, Choctaw Fresh Produce has been growing vegetables to supply Phillip M’s guests the freshest organic produce possible. And as the tribe adjusts to the challenges of the 2020 pandemic, Choctaw Fresh Produce is helping to ensure that tribal members have access to healthy food.
The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, Mississippi’s only federally recognized tribe, has about 11,000 enrolled members who live throughout its 10-county reservation. Its Silver Star Hotel & Casino and Golden Moon Hotel & Casino at the Pearl River Resort complex employs many tribal members, and is a major tourism destination and source of revenue for the tribe. The properties have 11 restaurants, more than 1,000 hotel rooms, thousands of slot machines and table games and a European-styled spa. Nearby Bok Homa Casino offers even more gaming opportunities, and the Dancing Rabbit Golf Club has two championship courses and a 140-room hotel. The nearby Geyser Falls Water Theme Park helps families cool off during Mississippi summers.
Pearl River Resort brings a variety of vacation experiences to its guests, and Phillip M’s wanted to add something special to its fine-dining experience. In 2010, the restaurant’s executive chef approached the tribe with an idea to source produce locally from a tribally owned farm. This endeavor would not only supply the restaurant with organic produce, it would also create jobs and encourage the continuation of the tribe's agricultural traditions. After successfully applying for and receiving a grant, the tribe began work on establishing Choctaw Fresh Produce. Farm manager Daphne Snow has been there from the beginning.
“Our main focus was on creating jobs for the tribe and increasing even more the guest experience at Phillip M’s,” Snow says. “But we’ve really seen the importance of getting fresh, healthy food to tribal members, and of reconnecting our members with where good food comes from.”
Currently the farm has five growing locations throughout the 35,000-acre reservation, Snow says. Crops including tomatoes, squash, collared greens and other staples are grown in 18 high tunnels (green houses). And thanks to another $450,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation awarded in 2020, the farm will be able to hire more employees and expand its farming operation.
And most exciting on the agritourism front, Snow says, is that Pearl River Resort is planning on opening a farm-to-table restaurant in 2021. “It will really highlight Choctaw Fresh Produce and the importance of agriculture to the tribe,” Snow says. “It’s a way to share what we do with resort guests beyond the fine-dining experience.”
Snow says it took three years for the farm to earn its USDA organic certification.
“It’s a lot of work to grow produce organically,” Snow says. “Most of our people had never had truly organic food before. Thanks to the resort businesses, we can sell enough to keep our prices affordable for tribal members.”
Snow says that from a business developed to enhance the tribe’s tourism enterprises, Choctaw Organic Farm has become an important source of nutritious food for the tribe.
Choctaw Fresh Produce has several outreach methods for getting their produce to tribal members. Their Mobile Market is a “farm stand on wheels” that can bring a portable farmers market to communities throughout the reservation. It also makes visits to schools to explain where food comes from and how to eat nutritiously.
School groups are invited to Choctaw Fresh Produces five locations to see first hand how food is grown, and kids are invited to get their hands dirty and help harvest food and enjoy what they’ve picked.
The TSA (Tribally Supported Agriculture) sells memberships to tribal members who receive boxes of fresh produce. For every 25 boxes sold, 25 are donated to elders.
“Every Friday our elders get their boxes,” Snow says. “They say its like Christmas because they never know what they’ll get.”
Choctaw Fresh Produce also has a Farm Shop at their Choctaw location, where on certain days customers can pick their own food right from the earth.
In addition to these outlets, Choctaw Fresh Produce comes full circle back to the resort to help its tribal members. Its produce is now being offered at the employee dining room, allowing the many employees who are tribal members to enjoy healthy food at work. There is also a honor-system table near where employees clock in. Produce is set out on a table, and customers put their money in a box. “This way people getting off work can bring healthy food home for dinner, and don’t have to stop at the store,” Snow says. “People love it, it’s been very successful.”
With the new W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant, Snow says Choctaw Fresh Produce can work toward adding to its 8 full-time employees, and expand the farming operation to near Pearl River Resort itself.
“That area is where a lot of our tribal members live and work, and it would make it even easier to get our produce to the restaurants,” Snow says. “Customers could be eating a delicious salad that was in the ground just an hour ago, and they could see first-hand how important farming is to the tribe. We’re working hard to become a vital piece for the community, both our tourism businesses and our tribal members,” Snow says.