A Seat at the Table

While growing up in one of America’s “food deserts,” Johnie Jones III, MPAff ’11, watched his neighbors struggle. Now he’s working to give low-income families a healthier life.

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Kathleen Merrigan pointed out the window toward the UT football practice field. “There used to be this pink hotel…”

The secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture, Merrigan was in town to give the 2011 commencement speech at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, and Johnie Jones III, about to graduate, was held in rapt attention gazing out the window as Merrigan narrated a story about Austin’s past.

The problem? This was supposed to be an informal job interview, and Merrigan, MPAff ’87, was distracted by a wave of Austin nostalgia. A week earlier, Jones, upon learning of Merrigan’s imminent presence on campus, pleaded with Robert Hutchings, dean of the LBJ School, for five minutes of her time. Hutchings managed to corral her for a short sit-down in his office.

“I was primed and prepped and ready to talk about my résumé—and myself—and she wanted to talk about the city,” Jones says, good-naturedly. “When she was getting ready to leave, I gave her my 30-second pitch.”

Jones had spent his time at UT—in fact his time in undergrad and even before that, too—researching agriculture, writing about economic development in poorer communities, and even interning at the USDA.

“If you know of any opportunities, let me know,” Jones concluded. Then he waited—for one week, until a member of the Obama administration called from the White House with a job offer.

“I was discouraged. It wasn’t until I went to UT that I understood that what makes me different than all the other bright, smart, talented people is that, I’m Johnie Jones—and I’m a go-getter.”

“Without thinking, I was like, ‘Yes!’”

Merrigan, now the executive director of the Sustainability Institute at George Washington University, doesn’t recall the particulars of that brief encounter, but she remembers being immediately impressed by Jones. She was also enthusiastic about his pedigree, having graduated from the LBJ School of Public Affairs with her chief of staff, Suzanne Palmieri, MPAff ’87, and several other USDA employees.

“Overall, he made a good impression. He was really determined to get a job,” Merrigan says. “It was about Johnie, but he was also coming from a good place.”

While most of his classmates were scrambling for jobs, Jones had just landed his dream gig on Capitol Hill. Three years later, he is deputy chief of staff for rural development at the USDA, and his focus is economic development in low-income communities coupled with healthy and affordable food choices for everyone. He works directly with corporations, individual communities, and in partnership with other agencies at the USDA to realize his vision, like when his research led to five new farmers markets in the Arkansas Delta, a region where residents had little or no access to healthy food options for years.

Still, even dream jobs are hard work, and making it in Merrigan’s office meant a lot of traveling, late nights, and hands-on work.

“It sounds great on paper, but often times you’re leaving the house at 4 a.m. and getting home after midnight,” Merrigan says. She recalls one trip to La Farge, Wisconsin, a rural town of 700, to visit the headquarters of Organic Valley, an organic farming co-op.

“I was friends with the CEO, so I was being wined-and-dined with my friends,” Merrigan recalls. “And Johnie and Stephanie [Chan, a USDA press secretary] were taken out to the farm to see dairy life up close and personal.”

Jones and Merrigan were also instrumental in an initiative called Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food. The program is an effort on behalf of the Obama administration to connect lower-income communities with healthy, economical, local food options. The problem thus far in these food deserts, according to Jones, has been access and affordability.

“You do better when you know better,” Jones says. “A lot of these people just don’t know—and they just don’t have access. We are pushing the needle on trying to find ways of finding access to food.”

Jones’ success is no surprise to his proud mentor, Aileen Bumphus, executive director of the Gateway Scholars Program in the Longhorn Center for Academic Excellence. She still talks with him on a regular basis.

“When Johnie came into the division, he impressed me right off the bat with his work ethic, how he takes on a project and how he is committed to seeing a project all the way through,” Bumphus says. “He has maintained that attitude not only in the professional world but also in his personal life.”

He also, Bumphus says, remains connected to the university, becoming a mentor to those who want to follow in his footsteps and personally calling UT students who are interested in working or interning in Washington.

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Jones grew up in Hope and Tollette, rural sections of Arkansas that are considered part of a food desert. His family had a car growing up, but he saw families without access to healthy and affordable food, families who had to hitch rides to the grocery store. That, coupled with a love for public service that runs in his family, forms the makeup of Johnie Jones III.

“My grandmother and my grandfather were sharecroppers. Growing up, when they got married, they said, ‘If we have kids, we want them to have a better life than we do.’”

His grandfather wound up buying land that he turned into low-income properties primarily for rent to single mothers. His grandmother, now in her early 80s, is still the mayor of Tollette.

“She is my inspiration,” Jones says. “When I was born, she was running for re-election. As a way of paying homage to her, I carry her business card from back then that reads, ‘Together We Make Progress.’ That motivates me.”

It’s that motivation that Jones believes helped him get to UT, and from there to Washington. Jones was in Austin to conduct a presentation during his senior year at Prairie View A&M, and after finagling a few minutes alone with Governor Rick Perry, he was determined to attend graduate school in the state capital.

From there, he says his confidence really blossomed once he reached the Forty Acres. He had spent time in Washington in 2008 during his stint as an intern at the USDA, and he remembered feeling overwhelmed by the competitiveness there.

“I was discouraged. It wasn’t until I went to UT that I understood that what makes me different than all the other bright, smart, talented people is that, I’m Johnie Jones—and I’m a go-getter.”

He continues.

“Here in D.C., people respect you more if you just go out and do it,” Jones says. “They are looking for folks willing to take the initiative—and willing to ask for forgiveness at the end of the day if need be, instead of always asking for permission.”

As Jones looks out on the Mall every morning, arriving at work earlier than most to stay ahead, he thinks about the ambition and drive that brought him to where he is—from a town of 300 in Arkansas to the nation’s capital.

“I just learned quickly in college how to hone in on that skill,” Jones says, chuckling. “A closed mouth doesn’t get fed.”

Credits, from top: Sasha Haagensen; Johnie Jones III

 

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