Elon Musk's Brother Wants To Bring Silicon-Style Innovation To School Food

Photo: Big Green

While Elon Musk is working in the cosmos, his brother Kimbal Musk is knuckle-deep in the earth. The tech veteran who made his fortune in turn-of-the-millennium Silicon Valley (in 1999 he sold a digital mapping system for $307 million, then invested in PayPal and Tesla. He's now on the board of SpaceX and Chipotle) has set his sights on solving school nutrition. On Wednesday, he announced that his nonprofit organization, The Kitchen Community, which creates Learning Gardens in schools, is expanding into a new, national venture called Big Green and plans to scale up to 1,000 new Learning Gardens in 10 cities by the end of 2020.

Musk found his way to food in New York City, whereas a recently minted millionaire he enrolled in the French Culinary Institute. Then 9/11 struck. Musk spent six weeks cooking for first-responders at Ground Zero, not far from his own apartment. The experience spurred him to move to Colorado, where he opened The Kitchen, a farm-to-table restaurant, and became involved with school garden initiatives in his community. "I was astonished to see how excited the kids were to plant, harvest, and EAT vegetables that they had grown," Musk wrote on Medium. It wasn't long before he launched The Kitchen Community, his own effort to install learning gardens in local schools where children, particularly those disadvantaged, could learn about nutrition and ecology through hands-on instruction. He had success in Denver, then Compton and Hawthorne in California, then Chicago, Memphis, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis. "Up until that point, building two school gardens per year was considered a strong achievement," said Musk.

Photo: Patrick Fallon for Big Green

Now, his goals are broader than ever. As Big Green, Musk's nonprofit will expand into Detroit, where shovels hit the soil in April, bringing their total number of Learning Gardens to date to 700. "American children are being fed processed, nutrient-poor food that leaves them starving and obese at the same time," said Musk. "I learned firsthand that school gardens are associated with the most positive changes in students' fruit and vegetable intake." One such student was a high school senior on the South Side of Chicago. She was prediabetic when she became involved in her school's Learning Garden. After six months of food literacy training and modifying her diet, her condition reversed. "Every child deserves to thrive in healthy environments that connect them to real food," said Musk.

Even with an estimated $63.5 trillion in American private wealth, the country is far from providing equitable access to nutritious food. School lunches continuously fail to meet health standards, 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts, and fresh fruits and vegetables are becoming unaffordable to low-income families. Big Green hopes to find solutions in partnerships with businesses. Wells Fargo, Gordon Food Service, Chipotle, The Kitchen, and Walmart have already signed on to help.

Will a Learning Garden come to a city near you soon? Musk has plans to sprout up in Colorado Springs, Louisville, Long Beach, and San Antonio next.

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