Real Food, Silicon Valley-Style

Square Roots, on the site of the former Pfizer building in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where produce is grown in 10 shipping containers using only enhanced water and LEDs. Credit Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

Ruffled feathers of slow food pioneers aside, Kimbal Musk’s projects focus on the link between food and community and his passion to make real food accessible to more people.

Kimbal Musk, 45, got rich working in tech alongside his older brother, Elon. Now he wants to do for food what his brother has done for electric cars and space travel.

Although Mr. Musk has food ventures humming along in Colorado, where he lives, as well as in big cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, he has become enamored of places like Tennessee, Indiana and Ohio — parts of the country he believes are the ripest for a revolution in eating and agriculture…

Mr. Musk is promoting a philosophy he calls “real food,” which nourishes the body, the farmer and the planet. It doesn’t sound much different than what writers like Michael Pollan and everyone who has ever helped start a farmers’ market or community garden have preached for years.

But Mr. Musk has big ideas about what the Silicon Valley crowd likes to call the food space, which is as exciting to him as the internet was in 1995. “We’ve never seen this kind of innovation around food,” he said.

In short, he wants to create a network of business, educational and agricultural ventures big enough to swing the nation’s food system back to one based on healthy, local food grown on chemical-free farms.

“Food is this beautiful gift we give each other three times a day,” he’ll often tell a crowd, “but you couldn’t design a worse food system than what we have.”

Rhubarb chard growing without soil inside one of the Square Roots containers in Brooklyn. Credit Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

Like a politician on the stump, Mr. Musk travels extensively to pound home the message that Americans — especially millennials — are demanding real food and rejecting what he calls industrial food. This year alone, he is on track to speak at nearly 50 food and business conferences. Under an umbrella brand called The Kitchen, Mr. Musk is spending millions of dollars on a portfolio of food-related projects, and forming partnerships with foundations and governments in several cities.

Almost unwittingly, Mr. Musk has become a symbol of a growing divide between those raised on the modern American food movement — which gained traction in the 1970s and drove a revival in cooking, local products and food justice — and a new generation excited about cellular proteins, Soylent and app-based delivery services that are driven more by innovation than by pleasure.

“It’s the divide between the technophile cornucopians and the techno-skeptic redistributors,” said Krishnendu Ray, chairman of the nutrition and food studies department at New York University.

“My way of working is very practical,” he said. “There are many wonderful solutions to real food, but I focus on what we can scale. The Slow Food guys were right, but what they didn’t know was how to scale. If you can’t scale, it doesn’t matter.”

Read the entire article here.

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