"Stirring the pot:" Marion's Betty Johnson receives MLK award

Honored for efforts to improve health and fitness of African Americans

Betty Johnson of Marion is the recipient of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award on Monday, Jan. 16
Betty Johnson of Marion is the recipient of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award on Monday, Jan. 16, in Des Moines. The designation honors her work in establishing and leading the Body and Soul program in Iowa, which is part of the First Light Christian Fellowship Johnson runs with her husband, Rev. Rufus Johnson. This photograph was taken at Marion Christian Church, where First Light has its office. (Liz Martin/SourceMedia Group News)

The church is the bedrock of many African American families and neighborhoods, but Betty Johnson says its nourishment for the body is sometimes a bit much.

"Unfortunately, in our churches we use some pretty rich food," Johnson said one afternoon in early January in her Marion home. "Soul food is rich."

Johnson's effort to do something about that has brought recognition: She is a recipient this year of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award, given on Monday, Jan. 16, in Des Moines.

The award is given by the Iowa Commission on the Status of African-Americans to recognize  "individuals who have demonstrated a commitment to Dr. King’s vision, helping others, cultural awareness, diversity, active community participation and promoting racial equality of all people in Iowa."

Johnson was nominated for the award by the American Cancer Society for her work in establishing and leading the Body and Soul program in Iowa. Body and Soul, which operates out of First Light Christian Church, aims to improve the health of African Americans through a program of education based in neighborhood churches.

"It's recruiting and empowering members in each of the churches to address the health-care needs of their congregations," said Johnson.

Body and Soul is just the latest in Johnson's lifetime of work for the health of women and minorities.

"I've always been interested in public-health issues," she said. "I love doing that, creating programs."

Johnson, who didn't want to divulge her age, was born in Davenport. Her family moved to Cedar Rapids when she was a year old, and she graduated from Taylor Elementary School, Roosevelt Middle, and Jefferson High School before earning a sociology degree from Coe College.

Johnson then worked as a nutrition specialist and educator for the Linn County offices of Iowa State University Extension and as education specialist and assistant prevention director for the Area Substance Abuse Council (ASAC). In 1989, she launched the Substance and Abuse Free Environment (SAFE) Coalition, which she ran until 2007.

At that point, Johnson expected to be retired.

"I thought I was going to, I really did," she said. "I thought I was going to go home and sit down, but that only lasted a week. People kept calling me."

Then a younger sister was diagnosed with cancer that proved fatal, and Johnson began caring for her mother, who'd developed Alzheimer's. And a brother was diagnosed with cardio-vascular disease.

"I saw a lot, and I thought a lot about it," she said.

There was a lot to think about: African Americans are at higher risk for cancer and other often-fatal diseases, including high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. They have the highest rate of diagnosis and death from cancer than of any ethnic group in the U.S.

"I was angry at losing my sister, but I used my anger in a productive way," said Johnson, joining the American Cancer Society's Linn County board of directors and launching Body and Soul.

Johnson and a group of volunteers give presentations at local churches, offering recipes and suggestions for healthier diets and exercise. They organize and promote prostate exams for men and mammograms for women, and in general get the word out.

"You have to be creative when you're working with the underserved," she said. "They don't have transportation, they don't get the newspaper, so you've got to get the message right there in front of them. We literally walk the streets with pamphlets and fliers."

Johnson and the other volunteers - "everything is a collaborative effort" - are also working with area growers to improve distribution of fresh vegetables in low-income neighborhoods.

"Going to the supermarket, the worst food is the most affordable," she said. "We distributed a lot of food to people who normally wouldn't get it."

The work is paying off: After five years, a followup study shows Body and Soul "effectively increase(d) the number of daily servings of fruits and vegetables that African Americans eat," according to the cancer society.

"So you see, I couldn't retire," said Johnson. "We're such a unique community - it's like we have this big spoon, and we're stirring the pot."

Johnson and her husband, the Rev. Rufus Johnson, have two sons and nine grandchildren. 

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