The Blue Zones Project starts from a beautifully simple concept: We have the power, both as individuals and as communities, to live healthier, longer lives. “Make the healthy choice the easy choice,” the Minneapolis, Minnesota-based LLC’s website reads, accompanied by pictures of people smiling and walking.
But from there, things get more complicated.
What are the specific health and longevity challenges of a given group of people? How are people already trying to address those challenges? And which changes, if implemented, would make the biggest difference to the greatest number of people?
These are the conceptual waters that around 40 participants from a variety of local food – and health-oriented organizations, plus Blue Zones itself, waded into during the project’s Food Policy Summit via Zoom on Feb. 25. Blue Zones is a national health initiative that is the brainchild of National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner, based on his research on the places in the world where people live longer than average while maintaining a good quality of life (Loma Linda, California; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece; and Okinawa, Japan).
In addition to food, the Blue Zones Project advocates for changes in the areas of the built environment (think walkability, public transit) and tobacco cessation. In Monterey County, Blue Zones is funded by the Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System, Taylor Farms and Montage Health. More broadly Blue Zones is an initiative of Sharecare, a digital health company that recently went public. It first set up shop in Salinas in 2019 and now is expanding its focus to all of the county and, in particular, the cities of Monterey, Seaside and Marina.
That expansion is in process, says Tanja Roos, community program manager for the Peninsula cities. In Blue Zones parlance this is the “discovery phase” – it usually takes about six months, Genevieve LeBlanc, senior policy lead for the food environment, adds. During the summit, national food policy experts Margaret Adamek and Miles Gordon presented a “Food Policy Discovery Report,” a document exploring the demographics, economics and food environment of Monterey County, drafted with the help of local stakeholders ranging from farmers to nutritionists and healthcare professionals.
The upshot is an irony familiar to many locals – “Despite the fact that so much produce is produced in Monterey County… it can be out of reach,” Adamek said.
How to address this deficit? The report concludes by presenting four “strategic priorities.” These are:
• Enhance collaboration across segments of the food system through the county;
• Increase availability of locally grown, healthy items in community anchor institutions, such as schools, hospitals, childcare providers, senior programs and correctional facilities;
• Strengthen small-scale gardening and urban agricultural infrastructure to facilitate neighborhood food production and healthy food access;
• Foster access to affordable, healthy food for people in need.
These aren’t small goals, but the report does provide some more tangible policy changes that could help. Summit attendees broke into smaller groups to discuss which policies seems most feasible and impactful. LeBlanc says she was pleasantly surprised that there was alignment on priorities. For example, everyone seemed to agree on creating a Food Policy Council – a suggestion that falls into the first policy focus area and would serve to help “enhance collaboration” through an “action-oriented long-range plan.” (Creating a Food Policy Council was also a popular idea at the Salinas Food Policy Summit about two years ago.) Other popular policy ideas include expanding school procurement of locally grown, healthy food and establishing a food insecurity screening as a formal part of patient intake.
What comes next? Another report, with a “blueprint” for the work the project will actually undertake, is expected in June.
From there the work of the “transformation phase” will begin.