- Author: Pamela Kan-Rice
While earning a bachelor’s degree in home economics education from South Dakota State University, Johns took a summer job with South Dakota Cooperative Extension teaching at an Indian reservation.
“One of my assignments was to teach nutrition to families on the reservation,” Johns recalls. “That’s where I learned that delivering a scripted program is not always the most effective. The beauty of Cooperative Extension is having the flexibility to tailor educational programs to meet the needs of your clientele.”
Although the Brookings, S.D., native had participated in 4-H and her father was a Cooperative Extension economics specialist at South Dakota State University, Johns didn’t really know the community-based educational organization until she began working for UC Cooperative Extension in 1974 as an advisor for Plumas, Sierra, Lassen and Modoc counties. She coordinated the 4-H youth development and nutrition education programs for those four counties until 1983, when she became a UCCE advisor in El Dorado and Amador counties in the same role.
In 1985, Johns transferred to San Mateo and San Francisco counties to serve an urban population as the UCCE 4-H youth development and nutrition, family and consumer sciences advisor. One of her projects was starting a school garden in Pacifica. She recruited senior citizens to teach the children how to grow vegetables. The senior citizens’ requests for guidance led her to develop TWIGS, 30 gardening and nutrition lessons for “Teams With Intergenerational Support.” Published in 1997, Johns continues to receive requests for the TWIGS curriculum. More than 3,500 copies have been sold to schools, after school programs, parks and recreation and YMCA programs, senior centers, nutrition networks and food banks in 22 states. California’s Department of Education uses TWIGS as an example of gardening curricula addressing education standards.
While serving the Bay Area, Johns earned a master’s degree in public administration with an emphasis in human resources at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont. In 2005, Johns was promoted to director for UCCE in San Francisco and San Mateo counties and director of Elkus Ranch, an environmental education and conference center in Half Moon Bay that provides hands-on learning experiences for San Francisco Bay Area youth. In 2011, Johns was also named director of UCCE in Santa Clara County.
In addition to promoting nutrition education and agricultural literacy through gardening, Johns has studied teen pregnancy. An article that she coauthored, “Best Practices in Teen Pregnancy Prevention,” was one of the most visited online articles of the Journal of Extension in 2005.
A founding member of the San Mateo Food Alliance System and a member of the statewide School Garden Network, Johns and nonprofit partners Hidden Villa and Collective Roots recently received a three-year grant of $173,000 per year from Sequoia Healthcare District to improve children’s health through garden-based learning.
While there have been groups who advocate for school gardens and those who promote nutrition, they haven’t always worked together in the past, says Jennifer Gabet, nutrition manager for Sequoia Healthcare District. Through a unique collaboration and development of a model teaching garden, 1, 2, 3 Let’s Grow! will emphasize growing edible plants, providing the students with fresh produce to eat and demonstrating how to prepare the fruit and vegetables they grow.
“Marilyn has been able to bring the two groups together, to see the garden as a mechanism to improve the school food environment and nutrition education,” Gabet said. “They teach science, but it doesn’t always include nutrition – discussion of the benefits of the foods grown and how students and families can include them in their diets to support their health.”
“This grant is pretty exciting,” Johns said, explaining that it incorporates nutrition education into hands-on activities for children, which is a more effective teaching method. She oversees the UC Master Gardener volunteers and UCCE nutrition educators who will be training K-12 teachers, parents and other participants at up to 34 schools on how to enhance children’s learning while gardening.
In retirement, Johns, who has been granted emeritus status, looks forward to continuing to contribute to garden-based learning as well as spending time with family and traveling for pleasure.