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Food for Thought

Kimbal Musk’s Big Green is inspiring a national school food movement.

In 2010, Kimbal Musk had a life-changing accident. His inner tube flipped on a snowy hill and he landed poorly. Musk broke his back and was left temporarily paralyzed. “I made a promise to myself,” he recalls. “If the doctors fixed me, I would dedicate my life to fixing the food system in America.” Fortunately, for both him and our country, rehab left the entrepreneur fully healed. He’s followed through on his vow, becoming one of America’s most passionate advocates for what Musk calls “a ‘real food for everyone’ mission.” 

As the younger brother of Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk and son of septuagenarian supermodel Maye Musk, Kimbal Musk’s drive isn’t surprising. His focus on food and cooking, however, is perhaps more unexpected. Yet Kimbal has always been the family chef and even studied at the French Culinary Institute. “My mother has always seen cooking as a form of torture,” he says. “But whenever I would cook, my family would sit and eat together.” He logged a stint working with his brother as a tech entrepreneur, but eventually returned to food. “It was like chewing glass,” he explains. “I didn’t realize how awful it feels to go from doing something you love to something you have no passion for.” 

As Musk mulled a move into the food world, he recalled volunteering to cook for firefighters who worked on the World Trade Center site in the wake of 9/11. “We would give them a connection and a break,” he explains. “The experience allowed me to understand the power of community, and it was the reason I decided to do a restaurant.”

Musk, however, didn’t want to open a standard bistro. Rather, he and business partner, Hugo Matheson, decided to reconnect diners and farmers directly. The first location of The Kitchen—a restaurant group which now includes eight sites across America—opened in Boulder, Colorado, sourcing almost from local producers long before the locavore movement went mainstream. Musk’s emphasis on food as community encourages diners to eat together and spend their money supporting the local farm economy. 

In typical Musk family fashion, Kimbal didn’t stop there. In 2011, he founded a sister non-profit, Big Green. Its focus is building small-scale farming spaces in urban schools, dubbed Learning Gardens. Students can learn both the source of real food and how to grow their own. Today, there are more than 400 of these micro-farms in cities from Memphis to Chicago, where mayor Rahm Emanuel supported the project with $2M in city funds. 

Musk was particularly moved by the story of a high-school senior from the south side of Chicago, who was diagnosed as pre-diabetic. “What a chilling and scary diagnosis for such a young girl,” he recalls. She spent six months on a Learning Garden food literacy program, planting vegetables and eating better. The result? Less than a year after her medical warning, she had dispelled the threat of a life-changing illness. 

His next project is Square Roots, which aims to train young farmers in new, resource-savvy methods such as growing lettuce with nothing but enhanced water and LED lights. The first futuristic farm is already running in 10 repurposed shipping containers in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This is yet another investment in the country the well-traveled South Africa native considers home. “America is the single greatest country on earth. I will never live anywhere else.” After finding an all-American cowboy hat in Austin, Texas, it’s defined his daily style. “I don’t take it off, except maybe to sleep.”