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September 21, 2012

To teach kids about food, put planters in the playground

The slogan "Think Different" has become a mantra for a generation of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. So when high-tech-millionaire-turned-restaurateur Kimbal Musk envisioned a network of Learning Gardens for public schools, he didn't settle for the usual framed, raised beds.

Instead, he thought of swooping, curved planters made of food-grade plastic, each with an irrigation system tucked away inside: a "product" that could be replicated quickly, at relatively affordable prices.

Product is not a word usually associated with organic temples of experiential learning. But like chef-restaurateur Alice Waters, who launched the American school-garden craze 15 years ago in Berkeley, Calif., Musk, 39, says such gardens are essential to reversing obesity, which now afflicts one in three American children.

According to the Journal of American Dietetics, sixth-grade students involved in a garden-based nutrition education program increased their fruit and vegetable consumption by 2.5 servings per day, more than doubling their overall consumption. A class of fifth-graders who participated in garden-based lessons scored 15 points higher on science tests than students who learned in a traditional classroom.

"For me, there's no point unless we are reaching a critical mass of people," says Musk. "It's not that small projects aren't doing good things. If you serve four schools, you can feel very good about yourself. . . . The only way to solve the problem is to reach all of America's 100,000 schools."

Musk's first step toward mass-producing school gardens is to install 60 Learning Gardens in Chicago, 60 in his home state of Colorado and 60 more across the country over the next year. An announcement with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the city's schools chief, Jean-Claude Brizard, could come as soon as Thursday, depending on the city's teachers' strike.

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