As soon as the sun comes up, Nhia Lee starts working in the garden. Lee tends a half-acre plot overflowing with fresh herbs near her home in Chepachet, R.I. She spends mornings weeding, watering and harvesting fresh lemongrass, lemon balm, lemon verbena and several varieties of mint before heading to a local warehouse to work the 3:30 to 11:30 p.m. shift.
Lee, who came to the United States in 1989 as a refugee from Laos, insists that she doesn’t mind the long hours, explaining, “Immigrant people like me want opportunities to reach our goals of having a better life here.”
One of those opportunities came last spring, when Lee started selling herbs to Sanctuary Herbs of Providence. She called it “a chance to step out of the box and do something new.”
For co-founders Eliza Sutton and Christina Dedora, launching Sanctuary Herbs of Providence was about more than just starting a new business. They founded the start-up after the 2016 election to showcase the important contributions of farmers from around the world who make their homes in the U.S.
“We were so concerned about the anti-immigrant and anti-refugee attitudes in the current political climate and we felt like we needed to do something,” Sutton recalls.
For Sutton, a food access activist, and Dedora, a farmer, bringing people together around food was a natural fit.
The pair, who had been involved in various farm and social justice enterprises in Providence, R.I., had connections with both immigrant and refugee farmers and nonprofit organizations working with populations of first-generation Americans. After doing some outreach to identify potential partner growers, the company acquired contracts to purchase locally grown herbs in the summer of 2017.
Herbs such as mint, lavender and chamomile are staple ingredients in herbal teas. Sanctuary Herbs of Providence opted to focus on tea because of its international origins. Once fresh herbs are dried, blended and packaged into teas, no refrigeration is required and tea has a longer shelf life than other fresh, locally grown products.
The company, which launched with 11 tea blends, is also the sole farm-to-teacup business in Rhode Island. Its…