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Kimbal Musk: Academy’s Speaker for Annual Celebration of Leadership

The Academy Life staff interview(Courtesy/Jeremy Morgan/Academy Media)

Following CA’s annual Celebration of Leadership Assembly, the Academy Life Editorial Board met with Kimbal Musk to discuss his mission to “pursue an America where everyone has access to real food” and his career as a restaurateur, philanthropist and co-founder of The Kitchen Restaurant Group, Big Green and Square Roots, each with real food missions. A condensed version of the interview lightly edited for clarity and grammar appears below. 

On promoting “real food” in the agricultural industry:

It’s both a very easy problem and a very hard problem at the same time. So the easy problem is, if you grow real food, the market has more demand than there is supply, and so the farmers that are doing very well today are the ones growing tomatoes, zucchini and straight-up food. The hard part of the problem is that our farmers are very old. In Iowa, 60% of our farmers are over the age of 79, so they’re probably older than even your grandparents. When you have a community that is truly at the end of their life, asking them to innovate and switch to growing real food – it’s just not going to happen. The government wants them to switch to real food, but if they change their subsidies, the farmers will get mad at them: they won’t actually switch to real food, and they just won’t vote for them. They just keep the existing system running. It’s really sort of a welfare system for senior citizen farmers.

On Square Roots and increasing produce accessibility:

The big changes that are happening down the pipe include the lighting that is converting energy into light more efficiently, and you are already learning how to create a light recipe so that you can make sure all the lighting is going to the leaf, instead of to the stalk. This is huge in terms of productivity, which in turn drives the price down, so we are working on it from that perspective. The other place that you have to work on is the input of energy. If you can get inexpensive or free energy, then your product becomes virtually free, other than some money for labor.

I’ll be honest: we’re in Brooklyn which is not the best place for solar — it’s very expensive energy — so, as a result, our prices are pretty high. But if you go to a place that is close to, for instance, a hydroelectric plant or hydroelectric energy, then you can just use the energy that is excess. The same thing happens with coal plants. There is always excess energy, and you can match your actual usage with the energy that is being output from the plants. You can get the price down very very low. That’s when you really start to think about scale. It’s when you say to yourself, “Okay, we need to move the farm where the energy is either free or low cost,” and then your product will become very inexpensive.

Click HERE to read more about Square Roots.

On field leaders Alice Waters and Michel Nischan:

Alice Waters is one of my idols, and what we do at Big Green is really built off her curriculum. Alice’s desire is for every school to really be like this school. So, you have a huge budget, and to have a huge campus and the freedom to do really a lot of great things.

You have a greenhouse here, you have a garden. Most schools just don’t have that. The truth is most of the schools in Columbus are very poor. They are in tight spaces, and the teachers may even have a second job because it’s such a tough living. You have to actually meet the community where they are.

What Big Green does is we build these beautiful outdoor classrooms that work in low-income schools. I think her desire is for each school to have two acres as well as an outdoor kitchen, which I think is great. I wish we could do that. But most schools don’t have two acres and don’t have the money for an outdoor kitchen. So, we do agree with each other. Yes, we would love that. I just work within the constraints of the communities we work in, which are low-income communities. She’s in 4 schools, and we’re in 550 schools, so I don’t want to knock her work because she serves as an example and we learn a lot from her, but there’s no scale to it. I really don’t think that you have the right impact unless you can scale it.

Michel Nischan is great. He and I don’t really disagree about stuff. He was incredible. He got 100 million dollars a year towards snap-funding for farmers markets. So, if you go to a farmers market and you have food stamps, you can basically halve the price of the food you’re buying. I mean, he needs to be applauded. That was an incredible effort and an amazing success.

On the link between sustainable farming and water conservation:

So, we use 10 times less water, so for sure that would be very, very helpful in Cape Town, South Africa right now. I’ll be honest, I think that what’s going on in South Africa is more of a political problem: it’s just poorly run versus it truly being an environmental problem. Obviously there’s a drought, sure, but there are ways to manage droughts that Cape Town’s not doing very well.

I do believe that indoor farming will fundamentally change the water demands that we have on our society. We will literally “one-tenth” the water, and it’s very exciting.

On reviving rural areas and cultivating job growth through “real food”:

We have been asked this by some folks, for example, in eastern Kentucky, which is a very rural community with coal history, and a lot of really good people who live there don’t have jobs anymore. The great thing about Square Roots is if you’re close to a low-cost energy source, and if there’s coal there as you can imagine, energy is very inexpensive. You can grow real food, and you can provide jobs to farmers. Each container is a job. That part is not the problem.

The harder part is-who is the market? So I’m trying to figure out which community is going to be the buyer for those greens. It’s actually weird, because you’d think Kentucky is pretty close to urban centers, but it’s actually really, really far away, a ten-hour drive from DC or New York. That part is a little bit harder to solve, because for the people who want to buy locally, food they’re connected to, as the food is being driven such a long distance, it loses some of its marketing appeal.

I think that we can absolutely create jobs, and we can grow food that’s better than what’s gronw in Mexico or Asia, which is where most of our food is grown around there. We can do it, but finding out where the market is is an important question. We are probably going to do it, so I’m not saying it’s not going to happen. We’re just going to have to solve for, “Okay we’re growing this-where is the buyer? What is the quickest way to get to that buyer?” It’s fresh and local, so we have to really hammer that home when people eat it.

On the influence of social media:

Our farmers really get into it. They love communicating what they’re doing, and it does help them with their sales. I think at the end of the day, though, it’s just about a really delicious product, and the farmers are focused on that. Some farmers don’t use any social media at all, because it’s just not their thing. They just really love growing food, and they do just as well as the ones who use the social media sites. I do think that in terms of getting to know your farmer, using social media helps customers get to know you better. When it comes to food, though, it’s all about taste, nutrition, freshness, local.

Click HERE to view Kimbal Musk’s TED Talk on “food is the new internet.”

On expanding sustainable farming to large-scale food production:

The technology hasn’t stabilized yet, so I don’t think we’re really ready for large-scale, Square Roots in particular. In Next Door (our restaurants), the technology is stabilized, and so now we’re trying to figure out how to scale. Maybe in the next year or two we would see a lot of scale, and what’s nice about Square Roots is that it is the definition of a modular system. We could do ten today and a thousand tomorrow. That part is what’s fun about the business.

On encouraging younger generations in rural areas to farm “real food”:

I really have tried to look at rural areas to figure out a solution, because that’s where most of our farmland is, and I have not figured out a way to do it just yet. There is a ten thousand acre farm–I think its in Wisconsin–that has taken corn and soybean land and converted it to a wide variety of real food that is being grown, and they’re doing a great job. That’s an example that I’ve been following for a while to see if it could be applied elsewhere. But my reason for focusing on the urban areas is because that’s where our young farmers live right now. They really want to be in the farming business, but they don’t really want to leave their downtown area. So I think hopefully at some point there will be a solution for rural, but the opportunity is in urban.

On the importance of Big Green and “learning gardens”:

I’m here today in Columbus, because I really want to share the story and to explore the potential opportunity to bring Big Green to Columbus. Big Green works at scale, so we would do about 100 schools in the area. I love connecting with community members that want to be part of that future — where we have a healthier generation of kids — because we can take what you guys have at this wonderful school, but also give the same gift of outdoor and in-the-garden learning to kids across the city. I love connecting with folks like that. The leaders in the communities that I work with do understand the power of “real food.” They also seem to see the damage that industrial food is doing- 40% of kindergarteners in low-income areas of cities like Columbus enter kindergarten obese. That is not something they did to themselves. That is something we have done to them, and we have to fix it.

It is our duty, as the patriarchs and matriarchs of our communities, to make that change as young as we can — so, generally, in kindergarten year — and give them a connection to food that they will keep for the rest of their lives.

Click HERE to read more about Big Green and “learning gardens.”

On long-term problems in the agriculture industry:

I think that we have a government subsidy system that is forcing farmers to grow corn and soybeans, so if you grow corn and soybeans, the corn ethanol market is government-created, just because we have too much corn. It doesn’t help the environment. So if you imagine taking that away, you’d have no business being in corn at all. You’d lose 40% of your market. But the other side of it is you have crop insurance subsidies. You grow corn and soy and a few other commodities, so the government will subsidize your insurance. And if you grow anything else, they won’t.

That latter part is important because if you’re a farmer and you’re 75 years old and you’re living off this farm, and even though the market is telling you to grow real food, the government is telling you if you grow real food you’re on your own. Once those farmers pass away, the new owners start to have more of a risk appetite, and they’re starting to grow real food cause that’s where the market is and they can make more money that way. The more we do that, the more insurance companies will be able to properly cost out insurance for those farms.

So let’s use tomatoes for example. There’s not enough tomato farms out there for insurance companies to know what they should even charge for it, but as more and more people start growing tomatoes, they will be able to do that. So it is a slow-moving change. But it is happening. It’s actually happening literally at the pace of demographics. The old farmers are passing away, and once that happens, we’re able to take that land and use it in a more productive way.

On Big Green and utilizing Academy’s Peck Greenhouse:

Part of the reason we have been successful with Big Green and building “learning gardens” has been that we go in and do a hundred schools at a time. When you do one school, you truly need a very passionate parent, teacher, student or group of students to make sure the garden gets used and to make sure that its run properly.

It takes a lot of resources to do that, but when you do it at scale, you can hire dedicated garden educators who might go to one school per month and instruct the kids and teachers. In the case of the greenhouse, if we had a hundred schools with greenhouses as part of their curriculum, someone could come by and help guide the teachers and the students to use it correctly and productively. Looking after one greenhouse, or in our case, looking after one garden, takes a lot of effort, but looking after a hundred gardens doesn’t take much more effort.

On urban sprawl displacing farm land:

I think that urbanization is really what is happening right now. Sprawl continues, of course, but most of the growth is in the core of downtowns, which means more density, and I’m not as worried about that. I think that we need to get more affordable and more capacity of residences downtown. Most of you guys are going to want to live downtown, whatever city you’re in, which I think is great. Urban sprawl happened in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90’s. In every city that I’m part of, it is happening less and less, but I’m honestly not worried about that.

On the impact of “real food” on US culture:

I really hope that we as a community come back to this incredibly wonderful thing of food and connecting with each other. It truly is the gift we give ourselves three times a day. If you know where the food comes from and you care about that, it feeds the soul as well as the body. I think that food, as a culture, is coming back into society. People are starting to cook more at home and are expressing their love for the experience of eating together. People are getting kits where they can cook at home, which has become quite a phenomenon. They don’t have the skills, but these companies teach them how to do it in a very easy way.

Americans are starving for a gathering place where they can sit down and break bread with their friends and connect with each other over a meal.

That’s coming back. I am very excited for the future of food.

We would like to thank Kimbal Musk for taking the time to visit with us on Tuesday, November 13.


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