The Kitchen Community’s neighborhood is about to get a whole lot bigger. Co-founder and CEO Kimbal Musk and his team already have built learning gardens in six cities. If he can make his dream come true, he'll introduce every child in America to healthy food and environmental awareness.
Musk, an investor, entrepreneur, philanthropist and chef, has taken the nonprofit national and renamed it Big Green.
Immediate plans call for a $25 million expansion into five more cities — Detroit (which joined the venture with the name change to Big Green); Colorado Springs, Colorado; Louisville, Kentucky; Long Beach, California; and San Antonio, Texas — with at least 100 schools in each city and the addition of a national board of directors. By the end of 2020, the goal is to install 1,000 learning gardens in the 11 cities. After that, his plan is to seek a change in federal education policy that will require learning gardens at each of the roughly 100,000 public schools in the country and add environmental learning to the science curriculum in those schools.
If that sounds like a big dream, it is. But dreaming big runs in the Musk family. Kimbal, 45, is the younger brother of Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, co-founder of Tesla Motors and founder of X.com, which became PayPal. Kimbal Musk is on the boards of Tesla, SpaceX and Chipotle Mexican Grill.
"Our mission is fundamentally about connecting kids to food and giving them healthier lives," said Kimbal Musk, who added that he and his Big Green team came to realize they do much more than that. "Our mission has transformed from community through food to this idea of real food for everyone. So, with that we looked at the name and we thought, 'Let’s come up with a name that really represents the future of real food and really represents what we are doing in schools.’"
Reaching every child in America
One of the things that they have done is grown into what Musk believes is the biggest builder of school learning gardens in the world. Big Green currently serves 250,000 students in 450 schools, many of them in under-served communities. That led to another conclusion. "What is important to us is that we need to believe that we can reach every child in America," he said. Still, there was more to his vision. "On the green side, we connect children to nature to help them understand the environment, the climate and that the world is a living being. So, Big Green really came together as the name that worked for us."
Musk is convinced that making healthy food choices and learning about environmentally responsible living at an early age will pay lifelong benefits. "Once you get kids outside, our folks are teaching them about science, not about food," he pointed out. "They just learn about food through the process." These science lessons and experiences average about 90 minutes a week. "The children are learning that a garden is a living breathing organism, that seasons exist, that if you look after something it thrives and if you don’t look after something it dies. These are fundamental lessons in the environment and the climate of the planet that we need our kids to know as they grow up so they can be better stewards for the environment."
Working together toward the dream
Musk is all too aware that he and his Big Green team cannot achieve his ambitious goals by themselves. To help him realize his dream, he's creating a collaborative culture of corporate, government and community members and putting together a significant investment of resources and funding. He has found widespread support from business executives, governors, superintendents, parents and teachers who believe in his vision.
"We have the good fortune to work with a lot of great partners," he said. "In Detroit, Gordon Food Service, Pathways Foundation, Carole Ilitch and many others helped us get funding for the 100 schools there. In Chicago, we have Mayor Rahm Emanuel. In Colorado, we have Gov. John Hickenlooper. Our corporate funders include Wells Fargo, Walmart, Chipotle and others. It’s been a wonderful road and the support has been amazing. That being said, we continue to look for additional support where we can."
Because this is a national dream, Musk is looking to the nation’s capital, too. "Our next step will be to get the federal government to see this as really critical," he said. "What is critical for school gardens and learning gardens is for them to become a requirement in every school and on every school playground. For example, if you have space, it’s required that you have a basketball court. If you have space, it’s required for you to have play sets for kids depending on their age. With a learning garden, it’s a requirement that needs to be in every school and on the grounds of every school. Once that happens, federal funding would be part of that. So very much we believe this is something the government should be supporting, that the government should be partly funding if not funding entirely."
He knows he’s not at the point yet where he can go to Congress and ask for that. "It’s just not the time yet," he said. "For us, for this idea of equity in a school system, we need to get to a critical mass where enough schools have it that the government, to provide equity to other schools, realizes they also have to build it at the other schools. We are just not at that level of scale yet. I’m a for-profit guy, so for me building a nonprofit and going to the federal government is kind of like going public. You really need to get to a certain size before the federal government can justify spending the time and energy on it."
Musk is convinced he’ll get to that level of scale, and when he does he’ll have results to back up his case. "We did a 100-school study last year where we saw a 25 percent increase in fruits and vegetable intake among students in schools that had a learning garden compared to students in schools that didn’t have a learning garden. That is extraordinary! We are so proud of that."
Test scores growing, too
On the education side, he emphasizes that the Big Green concept is really an outdoor classroom. One of his favorite studies, he said, showed that test scores in fifth grade science students increased by 15 points on a 100-point scale just by teaching the same lesson outside compared to learning it in the indoor classroom. "That is an incredibly powerful improvement in test scores," he said, adding that those results can be applied across all grades.
Musk realizes that Big Green is not the only player in the school garden arena. Some of the others include the national Farm to School program, the Captain Planet Foundation, The Green Bronx Machine in New York plus two others Big Green is working with in cities where they have overlap, Food Corps and Common Threads. "We created the Garden Bites curriculum, which is really the fundamental building blocks of our curriculum in schools, in partnership with Common Threads," Musk said. "What’s wonderful about the nonprofit community is we are really motivated to work closely together and to share resources and to fundamentally at the end of the day help each other reach more kids faster with greater impact."
His work, while national in scope, has received global recognition. The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, which honors leading models of sustainable social innovation worldwide, has selected Musk as one of the 2017 recipients to receive its 2017 Global Social Entrepreneur award. The award was presented in Davos, Switzerland at the 2018 World Economic Forum this week.
"It’s very humbling and exciting to be recognized for my work in bringing real food to everyone," said Musk, pictured above in Davos. "The Global Social Entrepreneur Award is not just for Big Green. It’s also for the work of The Kitchen Restaurant Group (a forerunner of The Kitchen Community) with local farmers to help bring local foods to our communities, and Square Roots, where we empower young entrepreneurs to become real food entrepreneurs. So, the award is for the combination of the three. They just gave me this extremely prestigious award, and I am really excited about it."
How to bring Big Green to your school
Big Green builds learning gardens at scale; typically 100 gardens in a community at an investment of $5 million in each community. "The key is to get the superintendent in your district to reach out to us," Musk said. "That’s the way we prioritize districts. If we are already in your community, get your principal to make the request."
Inset photos: Musk takes a selfie at a learning garden in Indianapolis; Musk in Davos, Switzerland (Courtney Walsh/Big Green)