Jovan Johnson survives cancer, gives back to community with natural food

What started as a small-scale experiment to make gluten-free crackers has turned into a burgeoning company with sales around the...

When Jovan Johnson talks about her life over the past four years, it’s hard for her to avoid the word ‘lucky.’ Today, she’s the founder and face of Jovan’s Pure Nutrition, based in Blaine, with numerous other ventures in the works. But as recently as two years ago, she had difficulty imagining herself doing anything.

On her 31st birthday in 2007, Johnson was diagnosed with an advanced and unusual form of colon cancer. As doctors from around the country could not agree on a treatment, Johnson, who owned an interiors company at the time, said the cancer instantly put an end to any entrepreneurial ideas she had.

“It cut me off at the knees, finding out I had colon cancer,” she said. “I felt like I didn’t have a business, I wasn’t working. I thought I was gone forever.”

And she said she may have indeed been gone forever, if it were not for the help of countless friends and members of the community, some of whom were going through chemotherapy treatment at the same time as her at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle.

“It was intense,” Johnson said. “But luckily I had some wonderful girlfriends to get me through it.”

It was with one of these friends, Marylee LeCocq, who was going through chemotherapy at the same time as her, that Johnson began getting into the idea that food can be used to heal your body. During parts of her recovery where she was confined to the house, Johnson said she toyed with a number of food-based hobbies, which eventually took her to the idea of crackers.

Using a dehydrator acquired from LeCocq, Johnson began experimenting with different gluten-free cracker flavors, gradually honing her techniques and having friends sample her creations.

“I’m sure some people tasted some terrible crackers,” she joked. “I was lucky I met the right people and got the right feedback.”

After settling on recipes, Johnson began selling her crackers at co-ops in the area, while making them in the commercial kitchen at the Bellwood Acres farm in Lynden. It quickly became apparent, however, that she would need to make some decisions for the future of her company soon.

“Crackers really started moving,” she said. “I knew (Bellwood Acres) couldn’t happen forever.”

So early this year, in a step to bring her company to the next level, Johnson’s company redesigned the packaging for its crackers, moved to a new warehouse and began the process of automating production, which she said is having a huge impact on her role in the cracker-making process.

“I don’t have to wake up at two in the morning and go to bed smelling like garlic,” she said.

On March 14, Johnson began selling her crackers, which come in four different flavors, at Haggen stores in Whatcom County, paving the way for larger grocery stores to start featuring her products. She also recently received global acceptance through Whole Foods Market, clearing her crackers to be sold in their stores. How the crackers do at Haggen will be a good telltale as to how she should be marketing them. For example, she said it may be a good idea to place them in the same aisle as mainstream crackers, instead of keeping them with other gluten-free foods.

For the future, Johnson has plans to expand Jovan’s Pure Nutrition and offer more natural and healthy foods, including what she describes as a “natural, mixed, fortified breakfast drink,” which is in development.

In the end, Johnson said she considers herself extremely lucky just to be in a position to make plans for the future, while giving back to the community with food that is good for their bodies.

“I’m fortunate to be in a community where so many people helped me get back,” she said. “Some days where I could only give 25 percent, they gave me the other 75. Now, because of them, I can give 100 percent because I have my joy back.”

It is this joy that she says keeps her going day to day.

“I have my excitement back and then some,” she said. “We’ll see what happens next. This is the exciting part.”

And Johnson is the first to acknowledge the significance of that feeling of excitement — the feeling that with the help of the community, she now has a future to be looking forward to.

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