Kimbal Musk was 25 when he and his brother Elon (perhaps you’ve heard of him?) sold their first tech company, called Zip2, for around $300 million. Elon poured some of his money into his next venture, which later became PayPal. Kimbal invested, but left Silicon Valley for culinary school, and later started opening a series of highly regarded restaurants in Colorado. Now he’s on a mission to help America eat healthier, more sustainable food.
“My goal is to go community by community and help improve the food culture, and get it to a place where we have a healthier society,” Musk says.
In a model that he plans to use around the entire country, Musk goes to a city, opens restaurants that help stimulate demand for healthy, locally grown food, and uses some of the proceeds (along with grants and city funding) to support building dozens of “learning gardens” at schools throughout a city.
“These kids have no idea where meat comes from, or where a carrot comes from,” he says. “We show them pulling a carrot out of the ground and it is literally like a magic trick. They just have no experiential context around it.”
While school gardens are becoming more common–with piles of evidence that they help improve nutrition and even test scores–they’re usually built in isolation. Musk aims to build 100 per city.
“The challenge of school gardens is there’s no scale,” he says. “So until we came along, you’d create a beautiful school garden, and it would do incredibly good things, but it’s not like ‘Okay, now let’s do another 50 of these.’ … We now come in and apply the same amazing curriculum and environment that has had those good results, and we do 100 schools at a time.”
This year, he brought the program to Memphis, one of the obesity capitals of the U.S. “Memphis is a city that has got an amazing food culture historically,” Musk says. “It needs to get out of the industrial food culture that has sort of taken over for the past three or four decades, where it’s very high-calorie, low-nutrient food.”
While his nonprofit, The Kitchen Community, works to build a hundred school gardens in the city, his for-profit restaurants are working with local farmers to build a supply chain of healthy food. “One of the biggest challenges is just getting more farmers to farm real food,” he says, noting that cotton farming still dominates.
“We’re working on building the local supply chain back up again, from virtually nonexistent, back to something that is scalable, functional, and affordable,” he says.
He’s also beginning to advocate for policy to support farmers transitioning to organic. As demand for organic food continues to grow, farms in the U.S. can’t supply enough. Part of the problem is the expense of the mandatory three-year transition period, when farmers can’t use pesticides, but also can’t yet certify their food as organic.
“There’s an incredible amount of infrastructure and subsidy for big ag,” he says. “We’ve got to give something to the organic farmers so they can deliver to the demand. It would be a pittance, virtually not even a rounding error, for farmers to get support during that three-year transition period.”
Musk is constantly traveling; when we spoke, he was in Los Angeles, where his organization is building more school gardens. The day before, he was in D.C., meeting with legislators about school food. Before that, he was in Iowa, talking with corn and soybean farmers about becoming organic.
Over the next 50 years, Musk hopes to transform food culture in 100 cities. So far, he’s built 251 Learning Gardens (the goal of 100 per city is new–at the moment, they’re spread out over 46 communities). One next big push will be in Chicago, where the organization plans to work with the city and school district to build 200 gardens by 2019.