People Who Care: Q&A With Kimbal Musk, Founder of Big Green and #PlantASeedDay
Here’s a fact: Kids who grow their own food are healthier than those who don’t. Children who garden eat more fruits and vegetables, and they’re more likely to continue those eating habits into adulthood. Yet today’s working parents don’t have a whole lot of free time to play in the dirt—and dirt itself is a rare commodity in urban areas. It’s a challenge Kimbal Musk is facing head-on.
Yes, the entrepreneur is one of those Musks (Elon’s his big brother), but Kimbal has long been obsessed with the earthier pursuits of food farming. In 2003, shortly after graduating from the French Culinary Institute, the younger Musk co-founded The Kitchen Restaurant Group, a collection of eateries focused on making locally and sustainably grown food affordable and accessible. “Our food system is broken,” says Kimbal. “And this is not a tomorrow problem. It’s a today problem.”
Nearly eight years ago, Kimbal founded the non-profit Big Green, which has since established hundreds of learning gardens at public schools in seven cities: Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Memphis, and Pittsburgh. These dynamic, outdoor classrooms empower students and teachers to participate in a food-based curricula, while growing sustainable produce to feed their schools and communities.
Today, March 20th, Big Green is expanding its reach with the first ever Plant A Seed Day, intended to encourage everyone, of any age, to get involved. “What’s misunderstood is how very simple it is to start growing your own food,” Kimbal explains. “Planting a seed is the first step, and that’s why I started the Plant a Seed Day movement with Big Green—to bring awareness to its simplicity and its urgency.”
Seed Phytonutrients is proud to be a partner of this important effort, and on this very first Plant a Seed Day, we’re excited to share a recent conversation with Musk in which we hear why he’s so passionate about food literacy and learn more about Big Green’s work.
SEED PHYTONUTRIENTS: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you first enter the school garden/education space?
KIMBAL MUSK: The Kitchen [Kimbal’s first restaurant] had been working with local school-garden programs in Boulder. I saw how impactful gardening was for these young kids. I realized first-hand that early exposure to fruits and vegetables can positively impact children’s behaviors, influence a lifetime of healthy eating habits, and reduce the effects of childhood food insecurity and economic deprivation. In 2010, after years of supporting this local school garden organization, I had a life-changing accident and broke my neck. I was paralyzed on my left and thought I would never walk again. The doctors fixed me and after that, I realized that I wanted to make a scalable solution to put gardens in schools nationwide.
SEED: Why? Why is food literacy so important?
KIMBAL: Food is a gift we give ourselves three times a day. Instead of real food, too many of us are eating high-calorie, nutrient-poor, processed food. Inadequate access to healthy, nutritious foods, particularly fruits and vegetables, is associated with both childhood and lifetime chronic health problems. Obesity in the U.S. now costs us more than smoking or gun violence, and in many cities, more than 25 percent of all children—and 40 percent of low-income children—may be obese.
Teaching kids how to properly feed themselves is absolutely a priority—it impacts their ability to think, move, and learn. Food-literacy programming equitably and effectively teach kids about food, entrepreneurship, and science through hands-on and project-based learning.
SEED: What sort of long-term effects do you hope this sort of programming will have on students?
KIMBAL: At Big Green, we frame food literacy as the comprehension of five key elements: personal health, food choices and goals, food access, supply chains, and environmental impacts. Big Green increases kids’ knowledge of nutrition, where their food comes from, and how to make healthy food choices. Learning Gardens also make excellent outdoor classrooms for core subjects like math, literacy, and science. We make sure that Learning Garden veggies are consumed at school, by the same kids that helped to grow them. Ninety-eight percent of our participating teachers agree that Big Green has increased their students’ understanding of healthy food. We are changing kids’ palates and preferences. Students who participate in growing vegetables are more likely to enjoy eating them. In fact, Big Green’s kids are 23 percent more likely to eat the vegetables served to them at school than their peers without a garden!
SEED: Can you tell us more about the actual gardens?
KIMBAL: Learning gardens are school gardens, yes, but they are so much more than that. Our Learning Gardens are productive edible gardens, made up of modular raised beds, and they include seating and shade to make them attractive places to teach. Standing at 19 inches tall, our garden beds are the perfect size for kids to be eye level with soil and plants. Each school and community is unique, which is why we make our gardens customizable. They are designed especially for each school by our team of landscape architects, transforming urban schoolyards into vibrant gathering places bursting with life. We help kids dig into their education, thrive with real, nutritious foods and healthy habits, and become active participants in strengthening their communities.
SEED: Let’s talk about Plant a Seed Day. Why is this campaign representative of Big Green’s mission?
KIMBAL: Plant a Seed Day! I am really excited about this initiative, because it makes planting seeds so accessible to anyone, anywhere. We believe that planting a seed is the easiest way for an individual to get the most of of our food-literacy programs. Plant a seed in the ground—or in a pot on a patio or indoors—and watch the magic of growing your own food unfold.
The goal in 2019 is for one million people to take a purposeful action toward a healthier future by planting a seed on March 20th [today]. Plant a Seed Day is about reconnecting us to our roots, to real food, and to a path toward a sustainable, healthy lifestyle.
SEED: Any favorite stories from your Learning Gardens you can share?
KIMBAL: A teacher on the south side of Chicago had started noticing that, every year, her students looked a little paler, got sick more often, and had lower and lower energy.
One day, a blood drive was being offered outside her school, and she took her students to get their blood tested. Almost every one of them was suffering from a serious iron deficiency. She immediately looked into what she could do, then reached out to Big Green about building a Learning Garden at her school. She knew that if she could help her students grow vegetables like spinach, beans and broccoli, she could improve their iron levels.
The results were incredible. Within weeks they had their first harvest, and her kids were eating fresh vegetables full of iron for the first time in their lives. They loved it. And their bodies responded. They call it their “Iron Man” garden. The kids got their energy back, and asked to take seeds back to their parents to grow their own “Iron Man” gardens across south Chicago.
This conversation has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Visit www.BigGreen.org or www.PlantASeedDay.org to learn more about either initiative. Are you planting today? Be sure to post a photo on Instagram and tag @SeedPhytonutrients and #PlantASeedDay. Growing Roots, a snack company that supports urban farming, will donate $1 to Big Green for every photo posted with that hashtag.