Kern County nutrition, family and consumer sciences advisor retires
The best way to help people out of poverty, is to help them manage money, says UC Cooperative Extension nutrition, family and consumer sciences advisor Margaret Johns. The Kern County-based advisor followed that maxim throughout her career to help low-income families lead better lives. After 26 years with UC Cooperative Extension, Johns retires June 30.
When Johns was first hired, she taught agencies how to use a UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) curriculum called “Money Sense.”
“Since I had just completed 10 years working with the Kern County agency on aging, I was very familiar with the 25 senior centers in the county,” Johns said. “I started a train-the-trainer program with the Money Sense program. We trained 150 agency staff throughout the county and, through them, reached thousands of low-income individuals and families. It was very successful.”
In 1995, funds became available from the USDA to offer the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program in Kern County. Johns hired the staff and made community connections to offer the education to low-income Kern County families, and she continued to push life skills education for her clientele.
“I have changed more people's eating habits teaching goal setting and financial literacy than I ever did in nutrition,” she said.
Johns shared an example of one woman who lived in a low-income housing project and wanted to buy her own house. When she sat down with a curriculum that outlined budgeting and goal setting, she realized she was spending $300 per month on fast food.
“So the woman stopped eating fast food, cooked at home and in time was able to save enough money for a down payment,” Johns said. “She bought a house and lost 30 pounds! When you set a goal, it's your own choice. You're not being told what to do. If I had told her to stop eating fast food, I'm not sure she would have done it.”
This philosophy shaped another curriculum Johns helped write when the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 (welfare reform) was signed by then-President Bill Clinton. A team of 25 UC Cooperative Extension advisors and specialists from around the state agreed that compliance with the law would require former welfare recipients to learn life skills and financial literacy. “Gateway to a Better Life” was developed.
Completed in 2000, the curriculum taught people with little or no work experience the skills for getting a job, staying employed and balancing the demands of work and home. In time, an abbreviated, lower literacy version of the training – “Making Every Dollar Count” – was created by members of the team and offered as an online, self-paced tutorial. A separate program – “Money Talks 4 Teens” – was another team effort. Called Money Talks for short, the program was designed to teach money management to the younger set using colorful graphics, interactive computer games and professional videos. It is available online at MoneyTalks4Teens.org.
All of the programs were honored with distinguished service awards from UC ANR. Money Talks was also recognized by the Western Extension Directors Association, and continues to be used for training teenagers about financial literacy today.
Johns is seeking emeritus status and, during retirement, plans to serve as a volunteer advisor to a UC Master Food Preserver program to be offered to Native American tribes in Inyo and Mono counties. She said she also looks forward to having the time for her creative pursuits, including scrapbooking, sewing, making jewelry and other crafts.
“I have a Pinterest page with thousands of ideas I want to make,” she said.