| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter


Mike Garfield


Healthy Food, Healthier Futures Project

339 E. Liberty St.
Suite 300
Ann Arbor, Michigan 48104
There’s more than one way to help save a planet, and Mike Garfield, director of the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, has had a hand in most of them. In his 20-year career, he has seen once-radical ideas such as recycling become commonplace and has persuaded communities to consider land use in new ways. Today, Garfield and his Ecology Center team continue their work to preserve our ecosystem for future generations.
Michigan Nightlight: What does being a leader mean to you?
Ecology Center Director Mike Garfield: I think leaders let people in the group be as effective and creative as they possibly can be while keeping the group focused on a common goal. I think that every human being has innate creativity and talent that should be brought forward and expressed whether in an organization, a business, a family or a community. And, I think leaders need to apply a soft touch to keep groups together and focused on moving forward, but they need to enable and empower folks in the group to be as effective and creative as they possibly can. At some point leaders need to get out of way and let groups do what they do best, and leaders need to help keep groups focused.
What is your dream for kids?
I believe all kids need the opportunity to live a happy, healthy life, and the issues I work on and the Ecology Center works on, if they are unchecked, can degrade children’s health, whether through exposure to lead, air and water pollution, to toxic chemicals, to bad food, to other environmental threats. We need to live in a world where we try to address some of the major determinants of poor health, such as toxic chemicals in products and stuff that is all around us in our daily life.
When you look a little closer at environmental issues or environmental health issues, when you look at those issues and the real impact of them, they show up in kids’ ability to read, their ability to be creative and to function in the world...

I want to see Detroit and Michigan get to a place where those environmental determinants of poor health are gone and kids are able to grow up in an environment where they can do everything. I have a four-year-old boy at home, so I think about these things. I think every single day as a parent. You put so much energy and love into the basics of your child’s growing up: their education and how they treat other people. Most people take for granted those environmental determinants, or think someone else has got to take care of those problems.
Just by their very nature environmental problems are large-scale concerns that most people believe are just what we live with: “I grew up with them, and they must be being managed to some degree by somebody.” The law in the U.S. about toxic chemicals has not been updated in 35 years; that doesn’t serve kids and communities – it doesn’t even serve the businesses that make stuff that is regulated by it. We’re dealing with an extremely complex set of problems, and we need an integrated and holistic set of solutions to them. It’s not an easy problem to solve and I hope that our community, state and country can continue to make progress and much faster progress over the years to come as my child grows up and makes his way in the world.
What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan?
That’s a broad question; I’d like to answer it by relating it to the kind of work we do at the Ecology Center. I think the most important thing that would improve social conditions and what you are calling social sector work on the cluster of issues we get involved in is the realization by decision makers, community leaders and the population at large that what people think of as environmental problems are really people problems.
We work to solve problems like polluted air and polluted water, toxic chemicals and food deserts. Climate change and other environmental issues are not problems in the world out there, they are problems for our communities and for our kids that affect our daily lives and affect our health. I say this because there is a general sense in Michigan and in the country at large that those issues I mentioned are for a group of people who like the outdoors, who care about saving wildlife and natural places and not about saving the people. When you look a little closer at environmental issues or environmental health issues, when you look at those issues and the real impact of them, they show up in  kids’ ability to read, their ability to be creative and to function in the world; it shows up in chronic disease among the the elderly and among the population at large. 
Environmental problems are health problems and the solutions are solutions to family, community, and people’s health. If there is one thing I could change by policymakers and the market it would be if that sense could change. If that sense were to change work on those issues it would be a whole lot easier to bring people together for solutions.
How do you know you’re making progress?
We can measure that in qualitative and quantitative ways. On the program that attracted your interest that Kellogg is partially funding [Healthy Food, Healthier Futures] we can see are making progress by getting good food into hospitals, and into the healthcare system, which is the most immediate part of the process. I believe by doing that there will be all sorts of ancillary benefits that come: benefits to the healthcare system, the patients’ food system and agriculture in Metro Detroit and the State of Michigan.
We have a number of ways we can measure how we’re getting good food into hospitals in Michigan. There’s a wonderful case out here at St. Joseph’s Hospital. They started a vegetable operation with hoop houses growing food for hospital operations right there on site. Through a number of other ways, we’re finding a way to make an impact on a good, local, healthy food system. We’re developing metrics for how to evaluate how much locally grown food is used in hospitals and we have set an interim goal of bumping it up to 20 percent. That’s a gigantic change for hospitals and the food system. You can see an increase in on-site farmer's markets in hospitals, and we have other ways to measure progress, like a pledge system set up for the hospitals to sign the Healthy Food in Health Care pledge.
We’re developing metrics for how to evaluate how much locally grown food is used in hospitals and we have set an interim goal of bumping it up to 20 percent.
We recently got the Michigan Health and Hospital Association to create a Healthy Hospitals Initiative which focuses on combatting the obesity epidemic in Michigan. As one of the four planks, hospitals commit themselves to a healthy food initiative. Part of that fourth plank is to source 20 percent of food from local growers and do a number of other things. One hundred seventeen of Michigan’s 145 hospitals have signed on to this.
Broadly, I know that environmental health issues are becoming mainstream when people start to take certain things for granted that used to be considered very visionary. I’ve been doing this work for over 20 years and at one point it was considered outrageous to ask people to recycle newspapers and tin cans. Now in many parts of Michigan it’s considered very ordinary. There is a whole range of issues, from the availability of organically grown or locally grown food to knowledge about avoiding exposure to lead, things which used to be considered very visionary, even outrageous, that are now commonplace. That’s a good thing.
What are you most proud of?
I’m most proud that several of the initiatives we have started that have led some of the major institutions and corporations in Michigan and around the country to green their operations. As an advocacy organization we have a number of different kinds activities to get our message across and persuade decision makers to solve environmental problems. We have often tried to persuade large companies, manufacturers or consumers of products to make their products in greener ways and conduct operations in other ways. Our operation has managed to, for example, persuade General Motors and Ford to source cleaner materials in the way they put cars together; persuade toy makers to phase out some of problematic chemicals; and persuaded all of the hospitals in Michigan to quit incinerating their waste. We campaigned for a long time to get hospitals to recycle their trash. These are all examples of the larger thing I’m proud of which is that we have managed to persuade some of the largest companies and large institutions to green some of their operations and have an impact on environmental health problems in Michigan.
Reflecting on your career, what would you say was your greatest professional learning experience? 
A good 15 years ago now, we were putting a great deal of work in an effort in Washtenaw County to help control sprawl. There had been great real estate growth in Washtenaw County. We were losing 4,000 acres of farmland every year. People then thought the agricultural base of the county was eroding and the vibrancy of communities like Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti was being drained away by suburban sprawl, and a host of other problems connected to that.
The Ecology Center and a whole lot of other organizations and people were engaged in finding a way to stop sprawl for more rational growth and development. In 1998, we had put a proposal on the county ballot that would have funded a new program to control sprawl in the county. We had a large coalition put together and hopes were high we could make a huge impact on solving a very complicated problem – one of these wicked problems that is integrated, difficult and highly complex. 
Despite all the prominent Washtenaw leaders behind it, most social and business groups supporting it, an active association of homebuilders and the realtors’ association funded an active opposition and waged a well-funded campaign to defeat the ballot proposal. It lost badly and those of us in the community were incredibly demoralized. We fought long and hard, and decided we needed to go back to the drawing board. We developed a proposal we thought our opponents would sign on to which addressed part of the problems, and two years later the new proposal went to the ballot. Eventually the real estate community did help get the proposal passed, and it made people more comfortable with the idea of land preservation. Three years after that we brought another proposal forward ... we brought forth greenbelt programs that were approved. After that several townships adopted programs of their own. We created a different set of programs, which accomplished the goals we had in 1998.
For me it was a learning experience that there are many different ways to find solutions to wicked problems. Many times you have to try a second way or try a third and a fourth time. What I learned from that was a stick-to-itiveness and a great realization that long-term issues need long-term campaigns, programs and community building to help find solutions. 
Signup for Email Alerts

Program Profile


  • Ecology Center
    The Ecology Center is a Michigan-based nonprofit environmental organization that works at the local, state, and national levels for clean production, healthy communities, environmental justice, and a sustainable future.


GreenFist Project at Sprout Urban Farms

How Motivated Kids and Better Food Access Fit Together

Stuart Ray, Mindy Ysasi, Mike Kerkorian, Ellen Carpenter from Grand Rapids' Nonprofits

Jumping Ship: Former Corporate Leaders Tell All


Practice for Poverty: Hunger Games

View All People


Kids Helping Kids

Kids Helping Kids

Helping other kids have enough food

Food Warriors

Food Warriors

Rewriting the narrative on African Americans and agriculture

Hoophouses for Health list

Hoophouses for Health

Improving access to veggies with hoophouses
View All Programs

Bright Ideas


Kids Nurture Detroit Gardens

The productive green space is part of the Detroit School Garden Collaborative, a partnership between the Detroit Public Schools and the Greening of Detroit. Amy Kuras eagerly looks forward to planting season in this report. 

Flint Farm Kids 1

Flint River Farms Educates City Kids About Farming

Flint River Farm grows vegetables, fruits and herbs on a Flint city block that used to house burned-out homes and vacant lots.


Healthy Futures for Kids

The Grand Rapids African American Health Institute addresses disparate health outcomes by acting as a resource for health education, research, and advocacy.
View All Bright Ideas

Directly Related Content