14:25 PM

President’s Prize winner sees success and opportunity growing from her project

Unity Fridge continues to grow to serve underserved communities

It’s been a little over a year since Maggie Griffin graduated from The Ohio State University and began her work on the Unity Fridge project. Now the social work graduate student is beginning to see the fruits of her labor, so to speak.

“You know I wasn’t a farmer or a gardener or anything like that before this. So the first time I went out to Waterman Farms and looked out at our little 1/3-acre plot, I was intimidated and scared,” Griffin said. “But it's really cool to see how a community has been built around this program.”

Unity Fridge is Griffin’s dream brought to life. She was the first winner of the annual President’s Prize. President Michael V. Drake created the prize to encourage soon-to-be graduates to develop ideas about how they can effect positive social change on a local, national or global scale.

The prize was $100,000 in startup money to get her project off the ground. Her goal was to use an urban farm and a network of volunteers to bring fresh produce to underserved communities.

“We were able to grow about 1,500 pounds of produce, which was pretty great for our first year,” Griffin said. “To be able to do that in our first year and to know how much more we’ll be able to do in the next few years is really exciting.”

Griffin credits the university’s Master Gardener Volunteers program with helping her get the garden growing.

“The managers at Waterman Farms and everyone who works at Waterman are truly incredible because they put up with all of my silly, uninformed questions. Not only do they answer them, they teach me,” she said. “Now I know what I’m doing and I feel so confident going into this year. I know how to drive the [utility vehicle] or how to use a blow torch. It’s made it so that not only can we be successful, we can do more because I’m able to do more.”

Unity Fridge has also adapted from the initial plans to fit real world needs. Griffin originally intended to stock fresh produce in Columbus City Schools. That proved difficult because the planting and harvesting season runs through the summer when a lot of schools are out of session.

Griffin connected with community organizations that already had ties to Ohio State. The university’s Moms2B program and the Columbus Free Clinic were some of the first beneficiaries of the garden’s fresh produce.

“[Columbus Free Clinic] was one of the first ones to say, ‘let’s try it out,’” she said. “So we’ve provided produce to their clinic over the summer weekly. It’s been a really cool partnership that originally, I never saw happening with the program but it’s been really this beautiful thing.”

Anna Stewart, assistant field director for the College of Social work, coordinates social work efforts at the Columbus Free Clinic. She said Griffin’s work has filled a need.

“We had been looking for a way to provide a food assistance program for our patients,” she said. “We get reports of our patients running out of healthy food by the end of each month. So just providing a little extra that is healthy and fresh and grown right down the street is great.”

Stewart said Griffin has been a fantastic partner and a great communicator since the Unity Fridge program started. Her social work students often volunteer at the Unity Fridge fields.

Griffin’s prize was supposed to last only one year, and she admits she did not see herself as an urban farmer. But her education helped prepare her to see an opportunity to serve others.

“The great thing about social work is if you have skills, relationship building, community building and you know how to make connections and make them last, you can do anything,” she said. “You can be an urban farmer or whatever it is your clients or your students need. You can become that for them.”

Griffin is working toward her master’s degree to be a school social worker. That’s her goal. But Unity Fridge isn’t going anywhere.

“It doesn’t feel right for me to come into these people’s lives with this produce and be part of the support system in their life and then say, ‘see you,’” she said.

Unity Fridge is now run as a program in the College of Social Work and will grow from five locations in the first year to eight locations in September.

“Until I know the program is a well-oiled machine that can function without me, I’m not going to leave it,” she said. “It’s a great thing for Ohio State and for students. I want to make sure that it becomes a part of Ohio State and becomes just as important for the university as it is for me.”