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Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Pandemic forces URI Cooperative Extension to modify plant seed giveaway

 Focus is now on bulk distributions

Todd McLeish

For more than 20 years, the University of Rhode Island Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener Program have teamed with the Ocean State Job Lot Charitable Foundation to give away more than a million packets of vegetable, flower and herb seeds to schools, youth groups, community gardens and individuals throughout Rhode Island and beyond.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the organizers to modify the distribution of the seeds in 2021 to reduce the risk to the volunteers who traditionally sort, pack and distribute the seeds.

“Because sorting and repacking the seed packets is an intensive effort that requires volunteers to touch seed packets and be in close proximity to each other, we couldn’t justify processing individual and organizational orders this year,” said Kate Venturini, outreach coordinator for URI Cooperative Extension. 

“On the other hand, it is a banner year for interest in gardening and growing food, and we wanted to make sure that the seeds still made it out into our communities and into the hands of food insecure individuals.”

Cooperative Extension worked with Job Lot to deliver entire pallets of seeds to large food-centered organizations that will make the seeds available to the public at farmers’ markets, libraries and directly from those organizations.

“We hope that by this time next year some degree of normalcy will be restored and we can again provide seeds directly to our friends and community,” Venturini said.

In November and December, thousands of seed packets were provided to Aquidneck Community Table, Farm Fresh RI, Hope’s Harvest RI and Southside Community Land Trust. Those interested in free seeds should contact those organizations to find out how to obtain seed packets.

The Narragansett Indian Tribe also received bulk seed packets to distribute to their members. In addition, URI Master Gardeners will use some of the rescued seeds for educational purposes at school gardens and food donation plots helping to alleviate hunger in Rhode Island.

According to Venturini, Burpee seeds sold at Job Lot are labeled for sale in a certain year and cannot be sold the following year, yet the seeds remain viable for several years if stored properly. Instead of sending them back to Burpee for incineration, Job Lot sends the seed packets to URI Cooperative Extension to donate through its network.

Cooperative Extension will offer a free webinar about seed-starting on Feb. 16 and March 2 at 7 p.m., and those presentations will be available for later viewing on the Cooperative Extension’s YouTube channel. 

Those with specific questions about gardening and seed starting can call the Cooperative Extension Gardening Hotline at (401) 874-4836 or email