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In 2011, Kimbal Musk, co-founder of the Kitchen (and brother of tech giant Elon Musk), decided it wasn’t enough serving real, local food at his family of restaurants. So he launched the Kitchen Community nonprofit with the goal of “empower[ing] kids and their families to build real food communities from the ground up.”
In practice, what that means is creating learning gardens—a garden as an outdoor classroom—in underserved, low-income schools across the country. Since the first opened in Denver in 2011, 450 learning gardens have been built across the country. Colorado, though, has begun lagging behind. The state currently has 55 learning gardens; Chicago has 150. But that will soon change: Musk recently announced the Colorado 100 Fund, a $2.5 million initiative to increase the number of Centennial State learning gardens to 100 (in other words, adding 45 more) by the end of 2020. “We built our first [learning garden] in Denver,” says Courtney Walsh, Musk’s communications director. “We need to look at our own backyard…to really impact change.”
According to the 2017 Kids Count report from the Colorado Children’s Campaign (CCC), 16 percent of Colorado children experienced food insecurity—“their access to adequate food was limited by lack of money and other resources”—between 2013 and 2015. In addition, many high-poverty neighborhoods are located in food deserts, meaning they have limited access to affordable and nutritious foods. That’s one of the reasons the CCC says, “…children growing up in low-income or food-insecure families are likely to…have challenges getting the nutrients they need for proper growth and development.”
School gardens can help reverse those concerns by exposing children to fruits and vegetables, teaching them where their food comes from, and encouraging healthy lifelong eating habits. At an elementary school, students might count the plants and learn their names. In middle and high school, the gardens become the foundation for a science class or a lesson in entrepreneurship (how to run a farm stand, for instance).
To accomplish the 100-garden goal, Musk formed a Leadership Circle comprised of prominent Coloradans who support his efforts to improve children’s health. Among them is Robin Luff, who also also serves on the board of the Kitchen Community. “We’re there to talk about the importance of real food, of changing behaviors. We all believe that can happen when we have a really strong effort in a city,” Luff says. “It’s useful, and it’s lasting.”
Schools submit applications for learning gardens, and the district has to approve the Kitchen Community’s efforts. The nonprofit has already worked with the Denver Public Schools and the Poudre School District and will continue to do so; it expects to add some gardens in Jefferson County as part of the Colorado 100.
“One of the challenges in Colorado versus some of the other inner cities we’re working with is that we have this gorgeous landscape we look at every day,” Luff says, “and it’s really hard to imagine that some kids have never played in a stream or with sticks. [Determining how to] make a lasting impression in Denver is really important.”
One hundred learning gardens is a big enough number to convince people (the legislature, school boards) to pay more attention to the issue. “It becomes an ecosystem about learning about food,” Walsh says. “If you have 100, then you’re able to truly impact the community…and reach kids at all age levels.”
But don’t expect this work to stop once Musk and team reach 100. ”Kimbal’s overarching national goal is to build 1,000 learning gardens to ostensibly impact a million children,“ Walsh says. We have no doubt he’ll get there.