A coffee shop conversation with the founder of UNITY Fridge
Written by OSU student Jessy Woodworth
When I showed up at Starbucks to meet with Maggie Griffin, she was sitting at a high-top table behind her laptop, placing a chain of seemingly important phone calls. She spoke with kindness and compassion about her community project, UNITY Fridge.
Maggie isn’t your average 20-something Buckeye. The College of Social Work graduate and current master’s student started a movement in 2016 that has since grown to impact communities in Columbus. UNITY Fridge grows fresh produce in a garden on Ohio State’s campus, and then donates the healthy food to local families in need through community refrigerators. We recently scratched the surface of Maggie’s story, but we were eager to learn more. She was kind enough to answer our follow-up questions:
Q: Once you won the President’s Prize, how did you get the project going?
A: The first person I talked to was Michelle Kaiser, a College of Social Work professor who has been with me since the beginning. I also had Marianne Ewing from the Master Gardeners take me under her wing and teach me everything I know about gardening. She taught me about the science behind growing food and the best ways to grow different fruits and veggies.
Q: How did you end up having the garden at Waterman Farm? How has that been beneficial for you?
A: Michelle told me about the Waterman Farm and helped get that going. They knew what I was trying to do and helped me get there. None of this would be possible without the people at Waterman. They don’t do things for you, but they teach you how to do it. They also stood up for us and our interests in meetings and helped facilitate the donation of extra produce from research trials and other gardens, which was super helpful.
Q: How has this project changed your perspective on where your food comes from and how it’s grown?
A: When I started researching food deserts, my knowledge of food’s origins was nothing. I didn’t know how disconnected we are from the food we consume every day and the farmers who grow it. UNITY Fridge has taught me how valuable that information is, which is why I love talking to students from local schools.
Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned about gardening and growing food?
A: Just how durable plants are. I used to get worried during every hard rain we would lose the crop, and it would be over before it even started. However, now I know those plants are resilient. Then to see that resilience mirrored between the plants and the communities we serve has been an incredible life lesson.
Q: Do you have a favorite memory from this project?
A: While we have a lot of funny memories out in the field, my favorite memory is from when we had a younger girl helping us at the produce stand in the summer. She didn’t believe that corn came from the stalk of a plant, not in a can, because a can was all she knew. Seeing the light bulb come on in her eyes when she realized corn came from a plant was the coolest “ah-ha” moment.
Q: What tips would you give to someone looking to start their own garden?
A: Whether you want to start a personal garden or a community garden, know your “why.” A motivating reason for putting in all the work helps keep you going when things get challenging and makes it more rewarding in the end. Also, know that you can learn. A lack of knowledge upfront doesn’t mean you can’t do it. It just means you’ll just have to do research and ask more questions.
Q: What’s an important lesson you’ve learned through this project outside of gardening?
A: Letting go of control. I am very much a planner and like to have control over what is going on, so that was a huge lesson and a hard one for me to tackle. Also knowing how to ask for help and support. This program would not be possible without collaboration and the people who have been involved. I remember going to the garden for the first time and just seeing a pile of dirt, but the people involved helped make it into something bigger.
Q: Do you have plans to expand the garden? What does the future of UNITY Fridge look like?
A: We have gotten bigger both years and want to keep growing in the future. Expanding into other communities to make local gardens would be incredible. There is more need than I can serve right now, which is hard to face. We want to be doing a lot more community-based work and really connecting people to their food.
Q: Have you met the people this food goes to? Can you tell me about them?
A: Yes, I do all the time. The thing is, there is no one story of food insecurity. You have to realize you are serving a community. They are the expert on their community and own lives. Food insecurity does not discriminate because there are so many factors that play a role in it.
Q: Do you see this program in your future?
A: This is my future. I want to reduce barriers to students’ success, and access to fresh, healthy food is a big one. We have to think about how we can connect people to the idea of food and teach them where it comes from so finding that food isn’t such a barrier.
Whether working in the garden or delivering food to the community, volunteers are essential for UNITY Fridge’s success. If you’d like to get involved, send Maggie an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want to meet local farmers who care for crops on the daily? Visit our Farmers page!