Kimbal Musk’s Quest to Start One Million Gardens

April 23, 2021
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On the day he almost died, Kimbal Musk had food on the brain. The internet startup whiz, restaurateur, and younger brother of Tesla’s Elon had just arrived in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, from a 2010 TED conference where chef Jamie Oliver had spoken about the empowerment that could come from healthy eating. This was something Musk thought about a lot — food’s untapped potential, how he might be a disruptor in the culinary space — but beyond expanding his farm-to-table ethos along with his restaurant empire, Musk hadn’t yet cracked the code. Then he went sailing down a snowy slope on an inner tube going 35 miles an hour and flipped over, snapping his neck. The left side of his body was paralyzed. Doctors told the father of three that he was lucky: Surgery might bring movement back.

“I remember telling myself, ‘It’s all going to be fine,’ and then realizing that tears were streaming down the side of my face,” he says. “I was like, ‘Yeah, OK. I don’t really know what’s going on. I’m just going to, you know, let things go.’”

Musk, 48, eventually made a full recovery, but it involved spending two months on his back, which gave him plenty of time to think about the intersections of food, tech, and philanthropy. Since then, he has launched an initiative to put “learning gardens” in public schools across America (now at 632 schools and counting); courted Generation Z into the farming profession by converting shipping containers into high-tech, data-driven, year-round farms; spoken out vociferously against unethical farming practices and vociferously for the beauty and community of slow food; and this year, on the first day of spring, is kicking off a new campaign with Modern Farmer’s Frank Giustra to create one million at-home gardens in the coming year.

Aimed at reaching low-income families, the Million Gardens Movement was inspired by the pandemic, as both a desire to feel more connected to nature and food insecurity have been at the forefront of so many people’s lives. “We were getting a lot of inquiries about gardening from people that had never gardened before,” says Giustra. “People were looking to garden for a bunch of reasons: to supplement their budget, because there was a lot of financial hardship, to help grow food for other people, or just to cure the boredom that came with the lockdown. To keep people sane, literally keep people sane, they turned to gardening.”

The program offers free garden kits that can be grown indoors or outdoors, and will be distributed through schools that Musk’s non-profit, Big Green, has already partnered with. It also offers free curriculum on how to get the garden growing and fresh seeds and materials for the changing growing seasons. “I grew up in the projects when I was young, in what we now call food deserts,” says EVE, one of the many celebrities who have teamed up with the organization to encourage people to pick up a free garden or to donate one. “What I love about this is that it’s not intimidating. Anyone can do this, no matter where you come from, no matter where you live. We are all able to grow something.”

Rolling Stone recently talked with Musk about the Million Gardens Movement, why shipping containers can grow the most perfect basil, and how he is channeling his family’s trademark disruptor drive to change America’s relationship with food.

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