Once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur.
In 1991, Kimbal Musk left his native South Africa for Toronto and then Silicon Valley where, with his brother Elon, he started Zip2, the first mapping company on the Internet. “I remember in October, 1995, seeing the first door to door directions on the Internet,” he says. “It was a thrilling time.” They made a ton of money, invested it in Elon’s startup that became PayPal, and made even more money, after which Kimbal moved to New York to enroll in the French Culinary Institute and pursue a long-held dream of becoming a chef. “I had the good fortune to have the financial resources to do whatever I wanted, and what I wanted to do was cook,” he told me the other day.
In 2004, Kimbal moved to Boulder where he opened an eco-friendly, farm-to-table restaurant called The Kitchen with a classically-trained chef named Hugo Matheson and Jen Lewin, who is now his wife. They did very well–the Kitchen won rave reviews, and it has spun off two other restaurants in Boulder and one in Denver. But along the way Kimbal realized he wanted to do more than cook.
Like his brother Elon, who is backing an electric-car company (Tesla), a solar firm (Solar City) and commercial space-travel (Space X), Kimbal is no slouch. He wasn’t content with running a handful of eateries, even ones that supported local farmers, practiced composting and bought wind power. He’s decided to tackle America’s childhood obesity problem, and not in a small way. He wants to build “learning gardens” for thousands of schools across America.
Last year, Kimbal and Hugo Matheson started a nonprofit called The Kitchen Community to build the gardens, which they describe like this:
Learning Gardens are an easy, affordable and scaleable school garden system designed to be a place kids want to play and teachers want to teach, thereby helping to decrease obesity, improve academic performance and strengthen communities.
So far, Musk and his team have built 21 learning gardens–13 in Colorado, six in Chicago, one in Los Angeles and one in Arkansas. With funding from JP Morgan Chase, they plan to build 60 in Chicago and another 120 elsewhere in 2013. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel told The Washington Post by email:
Learning Gardens are great for Chicago and for students, and I’m pleased that 60 more of these gardens are coming to our schools. These gardens teach our kids about sustainability and help them learn to make healthy food choices in an engaging way.
I connected with Kimbal Musk over Skype because this seems like a really cool idea–using the profits from the restaurant and raising money from other donors to teach kids about food, and get them to eat healthy, fresh fruits and vegetables.
“Obesity is the epidemic of our day,” he told me. “It’s creeping up on us.” It may not be visible in Boulder, where he lives–in fact, Colorado has the lowest obesity rate of any state in the country–or in Bethesda, where I live, but it’s a huge problem in l0w-income urban and rural America.
Studies show that vegetable gardens in schools make a difference. (Here’s one study.) “It’s just amazing what you can do these kids’ diet just by exposing them to vegetables,” Kimbal said. It’s also amazing how little kids know about where their food comes from; the son of a friend of mine recently declared that his favorite vegetable was “chicken nuggets.”
But Learning Gardens aren’t like digital startups, which can grow fast without a lot of capital investment.
So I asked Kimbal how this project can scale.
Part of the answer, he said, is that the learning gardens are (1) modular and (2) designed to last a very long time. So while they do require raising money — gardens typically cost from $9,000 to $14,000 — schools can start small and know that they won’t have to invest in annual maintenance, except for new seeds and fertilizer.
“We wanted to create something that was totally flexible,” Kimbal told me. “What we created needs to be able to go into every school in the country.” So schools with limited outdoor space in cities can install the gardens, as can suburban schools with plenty of acreage. “It’s more like a Lego block building system than a garden. It can sit on rooftops, grass, concrete, even toxic soil.” What’s more, he said, the gardens are “virtually indestructible.” You can see the product line here.
But who will pay for them? That’s the big, unanswered question. JP Morgan Chase has stepped up in Chicago; they are installing gardens in front of their banks, as well as in schools. “They’re a phenomenal supporter,” Kimbal said. Whether corporate donors can be found in other cities, and particularly in poor neighborhoods, is an open question.
One model for the Learning Gardens may be Kaboom!, the tremendously successful DC-based nonprofit founded and led by my friend Darell Hammond. Kaboom has enlisted dozens of corporate partners to help build more than 2,000 playgrounds across America. Maybe a big supermarket chain or two can be enlisted to back Learning Gardens, just as companies like Dr. Pepper/Snapple, Foresters, Disney and JetBlue have backed Kaboom. Wouldn’t be it great if we could help kids eat better and play more?