URI, Job Lot donate seeds to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico to help residents grow own food

10,000 seed packets are distributed to farmers, schools, needy families.

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A family in Puerto Rico holds the free seed packets they received from the URI Master Gardener Program. (Photo by Richard Asselta)
A family in Puerto Rico holds the free seed packets they received from the URI Master Gardener Program. (Photo by Richard Asselta)

KINGSTON, R.I., July 5, 2018 — Every year, Ocean State Job Lot donates hundreds of thousands of packets of unsold vegetable, herb and flower seeds to the University of Rhode Island Cooperative Extension and the URI Master Gardener Program, which distribute them free to hundreds of schools, community groups and individuals in the state. But despite their best efforts, the Master Gardeners often end up with a few thousand seed packets left over.

This year, seed distribution coordinator Mary Malouin, a URI Master Gardener from Cumberland, had the idea to send the leftover seeds to Puerto Rico to help islanders recover from the devastation of Hurricane Maria. After an online search and a few phone calls, Malouin heard from Richard Asselta, a retired Connecticut teacher who coordinates the Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots and Shoots program in Puerto Rico and whose wife, Nelly, is a farmer.

“When I told him how many seeds we wanted to send him, he was shocked,” Malouin said. “At first he said there was no way he could use that many seeds. But then he thought about all the groups on the island — and he contacted a lot of them — and they all said yes.”

Asselta ended up accepting 10 large crates of seeds, a total of about 10,000 seed packets weighing nearly 2,000 pounds. A former Peace Corps volunteer, Asselta contacted several universities on the island, which offered to distribute the seeds in their regions, as well as to community agencies, more than 100 Lions Clubs, and many other groups.

“We targeted small farmers, schools, church groups, community groups, and anybody that is willing to plant food,” Asselta said. “My wife also ran workshops on planting methods, showed them how to make box gardens and raised beds, and explained some of the seed varieties that they weren’t familiar with.”

The response was overwhelming. Anyone who said they wanted seeds got some.

“The general reaction is the Spanish equivalent of ‘Oh boy!’” Asselta said. “A lot of people are trying farming for the first time.”

HE accepted the challenge of distributing the seeds in part because he was looking for a way to help his adopted homeland after the hurricane.

“Everybody else was sending supplies, but in working with farmers we realized they had lost 90 percent of their crops,” he said. “Since Puerto Rico imports about 90 percent of its food, and supplies weren’t able to get to a lot of areas, people were literally starving. So we figured the best way we could help was with seeds. The big movement now is to grow more of our own food here so we can be more independent.”

The success of the program has Malouin and other URI Master Gardeners thinking about how to replicate it next year.

“It turned out better than we ever dreamed,” Malouin said. “It’s been very exciting, and I hope we can continue it. I don’t know if Puerto Rico will need quite as many seeds next year, but maybe we can find another place that’s hungry for seeds. It’s something we can really go full tilt with.”