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From the Garden to the Kitchen

The healthy food community envisioned by Kimbal Musk

Kitchen Community Learning Garden

Interview by Jeffrey Steen | Managing Editor

Anyone who is anyone knows The Kitchen restaurants—the clean-cut, casual bistros docked downtown (3x), Boulder (3x), Fort Collins, and in Chicago. But while we’ve grown awfully fond of nights around a Kitchen table, cocktails in-hand, the non-profit organization dubbed The Kitchen Community is much less known. So, we took some time with the organization’s president, Joan Haug, to learn about its mission, vision, and purpose.

The story of The Kitchen is a quaint one—fittingly begun at a dinner with both Kimbal Musk and Chef Hugo Matheson, hosted by Matheson. As the story goes, the two dreamed up a restaurant that played the part of a home kitchen, sparking conversation while lifting up the best in local ingredients. While that vision has definitely been realized in the original restaurant in Denver, and in its subsequent locations, where and when does The Kitchen Community fit in?

Hugo and Kimbal had this vision of creating community through food—which is how the restaurant came to be. Shortly thereafter, one of the early employees of the restaurant started the Growe Foundation in Boulder with the idea of putting gardens into school in local districts. Not surprisingly, Hugo and Kimbal became supporters.

Then, life hit. Kimbal had a major sledding accident that left him with a broken neck and a lot of thought about where he should focus his energy. Coming back to the idea of community, he said that The Kitchen needed to do more. So, he started the non-profit The Kitchen Community in 2011. It originally worked with the Growe Foundation, but quickly expanded to other major metropolitan inner-cities. He reached out to folks in Chicago and L.A., and went from there. And while Kimbal is an anchor for both the restaurant and The Kitchen Community, our organization is definitely its own entity—we’re a 501(c)(3) that does its own fundraising and program development.

The whole idea of a school garden sounds a lot like Alice Waters’s Edible Schoolyard, no?

Yes, it is, but there are some important differences. Edible Schoolyard’s model focuses on creating larger gardens, but fewer of them. Conversely, The Kitchen Community plants smaller gardens and more of them. We’re very school-based as well. And sure, there are lots of local organizations that promote urban gardening—Denver Urban Gardens, for example—but we each have our own approaches.

We also don’t create our own curricula—we use what’s already been developed. In essence, we build activities around existing curricula to keep things simple for teachers. Then, as a supplement, we offer workshops for school districts and teachers so that staff and educators are encouraged to work together on projects for their Learning Gardens. That collaboration innately builds its own community. And if you can get the teachers to use the gardens as classrooms, there’s a much better chance the importance of gardening will reach the students.

President Joan Haug

President Joan Haug

So you’re very much centered around the gardens themselves, and letting that carry over into classroom instruction.

That’s part of it. But we’ve also found that a lot of our schools need the gardening space to begin with. So we’ve engaged in complete construction projects for that very purpose—installing planters, shade structures, beds, and so on. And while gardening is the end result of that construction, we also bring in science education to the process. Because our gardens are smaller, they can’t function as production gardens for cafeterias (like those of the Edible Schoolyard program). Instead, ours become tools for science and culinary education. Naturally, STEM topics (science, technology, engineering, and math) rank highly on districts’ educational priorities, so it makes sense to focus on them through the use of Learning Gardens.

What’s the grand vision for The Kitchen Community? Is there such a thing as a successful endpoint?

If you talk to Kimbal, he has very lofty goals. We’re in four regions right now—Denver, L.A., Chicago, and, soon, Memphis. So where do we aim to build our gardens and engage students? Well, we look at need, and we consider community comments. Naturally, we focus on inner-city environments where the need for local, healthy food is high. Kimbal’s ultimate vision is to have learning gardens in schools, while also having local restaurant spaces that educate diners on local farming and agriculture. Memphis has been really pushing for that—trying to get young adults back into farming. So, for example, our model of success for a launch in Memphis is to reach teachers and students through dozens of local learning gardens, then use these as a jumping off point to talk about farming and home cooking. Building a strong relationship with food is important, but we also have to reach outside of the school environment. How do we get kids and their parents to start cooking at home again? How can they grow what they eat in a simple, efficient, and cheap way without having to use processed foods? We even have billboards up in some of these cities with simple recipes that people can cook at home. It’s all part of the growing vision of The Kitchen Community.

You mentioned home cooking as part of your outreach. What does that look like, and how do you measure success?

It’s difficult. Access to quality food that makes home cooking possible is a real challenge in inner-cities. And with people as busy as they are these days, cooking often falls by the wayside. But Hugo and Kimbal are passionate about the experience of sitting around the table and eating. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. Offering simple recipes is part of the solution, as is focusing on sourcing, simple instructions on seasoning, and giving people the tools they need to make a meal happen—from straightforward guidance to basic pots and pans. But none of this is new, and a lot of it has taken the shape of partnering with existing programs for increased visibility and support. In Memphis, for example, there are several inner-city cooking programs that are successful, so we’ve been reaching out to them and teaming up.

There’s more on the horizon, too—large cooking events with local chefs, campaigns at established school gardens, things like that. We’re always trying to build our outreach.

A Learning Gardens Playground

A Learning Gardens Playground

Learning gardens are great for the public, especially for youth who need to learn good habits early on, but what about restaurants? Does your education extend to restaurant employees?

Funny you should mention it. We’re actually piloting what we call a Restaurant Entrepreneurship Program for four schools in Chicago. Basically, we pair a high school with a local restaurant (one of which will be The Kitchen, of course). Then we take a couple classes and have the students grow something for the restaurant. The students have to develop a business model that makes growing and maintaining the ingredients possible, and subsidizes delivery and maintenance of the business. The purpose is to get the kids thinking about gardening not only as a healthy foundation for cooking and eating, but as a viable business—a microcosm of a farm.

We’re also constantly bringing students in for restaurant tours and engaging them with the restaurant staff. Hugo loves to open them up to that world.

Can you share an anecdote with us about The Kitchen Community and its impact in the community?

To be honest, there are too many to choose from. I started as a teacher myself, and grew up gardening in Wisconsin, so I came at this from a unique perspective—as someone who already knew what it meant to grow the food you eat. And as part of my teaching career, I experienced classes in inner-city schools where positive change was hard to make. While you can always ask what difference a garden makes, when you see a student’s face light up and you realize you’ve tapped into something truly special, you know it’s all worth it. It could be their path, their career, their vocation. That’s why we do this. Granted, we’re just a piece of the urban improvement puzzle, but we’re playing our part and making an impact in the ways we know how.

So beyond the obvious obstacles, what’s keeping you from growing even faster than you are?

Ninety-eight percent of our gardens are in schools. Schools, generally, have no funding and teachers are really, really busy. Like art and music programs, we face issues of need and resources. Beyond that, the biggest issues are time and training. And whatever the circumstances of a district or school, we have to be able to stick around as long as possible. We have to adapt to the growth and change in every region. We set up teams across the country just for that purpose, but it doesn’t always make weathering the storms of funding and support easy.

My day-to-day challenge is just knowing we’re sustainable. Can we survive—beyond a year or two—and really have an impact?

The perennial argument against local sourcing and buying remains very true: it’s generally cheaper and faster to buy processed foods than cook with local and organic ones. Also, it seems that it would be difficult to make or find the space for gardening if you’re an inner-city resident. How do you face these challenges?

Well, everything has its critic. There’s no clear answer, and every region is different. To be honest, we hear plenty from students who have fallen in love with the learning gardens, and they’re the ones who are more likely to grow something at home—even if it’s in a bucket. True, inner-city access to fresh foods is really difficult. But we have to try. Our three main goals are daunting, but they continue to be pillars of our work: building learning garden communities so students and families can have healthier relationships with food; connecting communities together; and creating an environment that supports the whole child—physically, mentally, and emotionally. So we’re not just about the food. And even if the challenges are immense, we have to try. We just have to.

The Kitchen Community was only founded in 2011, but have you been able to follow students who took part in Learning Gardens, and has that been a way to measure success?

A bit, but there is work being done to track this even better in the years ahead. Right now, we conduct surveys with teachers, and we do a lot of workshops with educators to discuss interest in and effectiveness of our programs. Kimbal thought we could fairly easily measure increases in test scores as a result of science taught through hands-on instruction in the gardens. But where do you start with that? Do we survey the teachers and see if our work is helping? Or compare test scores directly? There are so many variables and measures for success, even in an established curriculum. Sometimes the most accurate measure of success is attendance—does having a learning garden keep students in school every day? Then, there are the gardens themselves. Are they physically successful—growing and healthy? From that you can start to draw some conclusions. But we’re still working on evaluation metrics. That’s a big challenge for non-profits, because donors want to see concrete proof that their dollars are making a difference.

Part of this educational process is clearly political. Does The Kitchen Community engage in political activity? If so, what does that look like?

Not explicitly, no. There are a lot of nonprofits engaged in food policy, and many engaged in political debates about food served in schools. We’ve never taken a big stance on anything in particular, and we’ve avoided policy as a whole. At the same time, it’s hard to avoid it completely. In Chicago, for example, we got $1 million from Mayor Rahm Emmanuel to build 100 gardens in Chicago. Was that politically oriented? You could say so, because he was closing 50 schools at the same time. But it wasn’t overtly political to us. It was just a donation.

After four years of work, what kind of feedback around getting from Colorado communities, especially in Denver and Boulder?

We’re one of the healthiest states in the U.S., so we started with a foundational appreciation for the kind of work The Kitchen Community is doing. But the nonprofit world is more cutthroat than people think. We struggle with egos. Still, I believe that if you do the right thing for the right reasons, then you’ll end up where you should. As they say, it’s best to play nice in the sandbox.

For more information about The Kitchen Community and its endeavors, visit them online at thekitchencommunity.org. Also, if you’re curious about some recipes Haug and her team have assembled for home cooks, you can try your hand at the following recipe for Roasted Chicken. There are more online, too.

Roasted Chicken from The Kitchen Community
makes 1 whole chicken

Ingredients

1 whole chicken
1 Tbsp vegetable oil or 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 Tbsp salt

Method

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place chicken in cooking pan and add 1 tablespoon vegetable oil or 2 tablespoons butter. Evenly distribute 1 tablespoon of salt onto chicken. Place in middle rack of oven and cook for 1 hour 15 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and enjoy with your family or friends.

Note: Oven temperatures may vary. Check for pink spots prior to enjoying with your family.