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AG Secretary Vilsack Visits Choctaw Nation on 1-Year Promise Zone Anniversary

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack toured the Choctaw Nation Food Distribution Center recently as part of an overall progress report.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack toured the Choctaw Nation Food Distribution Center in Durant on January 29 as part of an overall progress report on the one-year anniversary of the tribe’s designation as one of President Barack Obama’s Promise Zones.

Secretary Vilsack said the facility, which opened in June of 2014, was one of many Choctaw Nation initiatives aimed at improving the well being of low-income families while creating jobs and business opportunities.

“Whether a senior citizen on a fixed income or a family struggling, this is an opportunity for you to have access to nutritious food and sufficient quantity to take care of your family,” Vilsack said after a tour of the facility led by Jerry Tonubbee, Choctaw Nation Director of Food Distribution. “What’s nice about this particular facility is it gives people the opportunity to choose and feel like they are in a grocery store setting.”

The Secretary also sampled some muffins made by Carmen Robertson, a tribal nutritionist and host of Cooking With Carmen, a Choctaw Nation-sponsored show that encourages healthy eating habits for food distribution program participants.

But the tour and taste testing were just a small part of Secretary Vilsack’s visit to Durant on Thursday. He met with Chief Gary Batton and Assistant Chief Jack Austin Jr., as well as several tribal leaders and regional leaders from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Choctaw Nation was the first tribal area to be designated under our Promise Zone Initiative,” Vilsack said. “I wanted to get a reading on how well we’ve done over the last year. $4.6 million has been invested by a variety of federal agencies.

“I got a good sense today from leaders of the next steps in the process. Very, very great plans, hundreds of millions of dollars in potential investments that could take place, thousands of jobs that could be created – that’s the promise of Promise Zones.”

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Secretary Vilsack and Chief Gary Batton met and discussed several items of interest to the Choctaw Nation.

“It was a great opportunity to visit with Secretary Vilsack on the progress of our Promise Zone initiatives,” Batton said. “We've been successful in creating more jobs and are looking forward to implementing plans to continue improving the economic future of Southeast Oklahoma.”

Sara-Jane Smallwood, Director of the Choctaw Nation Promise Zone Initiative, said the tribe was able to show its progress during the first year of the 10-year designation.

“The Secretary’s visit is a historic way to mark the one year anniversary of the Promise Zone,” she said. “We were able to demonstrate the steps we have accomplished so far. With the Secretary and Chief Batton providing leadership and guidance, it will make a tremendous impact on southeast Oklahoma over the remaining nine years of the Promise Zone.”

USDA officials in attendance of this meeting included Director of Tribal Relations Leslie Wheelock, NRCS State Conservationist Gary O’Neill, and Rural Development State Director Ryan McMullen. Also present were Ouachita National Forest Supervisor Norm Wagner and Durant Mayor Jerry Tomlinson.

Secretary Vilsack said it was up to local leaders such as these to work with Choctaw Nation to implement the plans outlined in the tribal Promise Zone Initiative.

“There is a very aggressive plan here. The challenge now is to figure out: How do we make that vision a reality, how do we invest in infrastructure,” Secretary Vilsack said. “This is a Promise Zone that is really living up to its responsibilities of being bold and thinking big… This is all about figuring out how to extend paychecks, how to better prepare people for great jobs in the future and how to build those jobs here today. That���s the president’s vision, and after seeing what I saw here today, I’m pretty sure that’s the vision of the Choctaw Nation as well.”