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Blue Zones Project in Monterey County: Encouraging Longer, Healthier Lives

Blue Zones Project in Monterey County: Encouraging Longer, Healthier Lives

The term "Blue Zones" is the name given to geographic regions where people are said to live quantifiably longer, healthier lives. As one of 47 total Blue Zones Project communities, the chapter in Salinas and greater Monterey County is on the path to do just that.

To listen to an in-depth conversation on this topic with Tiffany DiTullio, Executive Director of the Blue Zones Project, click here.

What Is the Blue Zones Project?

Blue Zones Project is a community well-being improvement initiative, designed to change the way people experience the world around them. Healthier environments naturally nudge people towards healthier choices, so the Blue Zones Project focuses on influencing what’s known as the “life radius.” This is the area close to home in which people spend 90% of their lives.

“The project focuses on influencing the approximate 10 miles around where a person lives, works, and plays. Think about where you work or live and ask, ‘Where do I grocery shop? Where do I eat out? Where do I recreate?’ We really want to develop the environment around a person's life radius to push them towards the healthy choice,” states Tiffany DiTullio, Executive Director of the Blue Zones Project Monterey County.

For example, DiTullio’s team works with county and city leaders to focus on policy improvements or alignments that are related to goals like tobacco cessation and increasing food access (e.g. smoke-free parks or walkability/bikeability models to create access and connections to healthy choices). By introducing small, incremental changes, the initiative aims to make the healthy choice the easy choice.

Characteristics of Blue Zone Communities

Blue Zones Project has defined a “Power 9” as the nine elements consistently found throughout the five original blue zones. Power 9 is broken into four categories:

1) Move Naturally. Identify ways to incorporate natural movement, such as bringing a pair of tennis shoes to work to make walking breaks easy, parking further away from your destination, walking your dog, creating walking meetings, gardening; anything that spurs individuals to move.

2) Right Outlook. What is your purpose? What gets you out of bed in the morning? This also involves making time to downshift; to slow down. Or, what DiTullio calls “me time.”

3) Eating Wisely. Incorporate the “eat until you're 80% full” rule. In Okinawa, individuals pause before each meal to say, “hara hachi bu,” which is a reminder to not eat for the pleasure of eating; just until they're full. This category also recommends a “plant slant,” which is not a vegetarian or vegan diet. Rather, it’s about looking for opportunities to incorporate more fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains into your daily intake.

4) Belong. Work on creating a healthy social network, connecting or reconnecting with religion or any group that grounds you. Always prioritize family, putting family first.

Milestones to Celebrate

Anytime a new initiative is introduced to communities, there’s a period of adjustment. DiTullio is inspired by the positive reaction from community members since the project’s launch in June 2019.

“We're excited about the early adopters and the early successes. I think with any new project or any new program, you really have to listen a bit more than you speak. In order for us to support the great work already being done in the community, we have to understand it first; get an idea of who's doing what and how they're doing it. Then, we look for alignment and collaborative opportunities that allow us to really elevate the good work they're doing.”

A few key milestones she shares include:

  • Ten large employers achieved Blue Zones work site approval
  • Engagement of over 5,500 people in some element of the project (purpose workshops, school garden reinvigoration, etc.)
  • Support for the Monterey County Health Department’s goal of having all Monterey County parks smoke-free
  • Collaboration with Salinas Regional Sports Authority to expand recreation and fitness opportunities
  • Aiding a variety of local organizations in developing community gardens

Throughout the project’s efforts, a great deal of energy was put into ensuring messaging and materials were culturally appropriate and appealing to all. “Anything we put out was available in English and Spanish. We addressed reading levels and really have a strong commitment to making sure the voice is relevant to our community. This is a project where community engagement is the most critical part, so making sure people feel a part of the project was important,” shares DiTullio.

The Pandemic Pivot

When COVID-19 started to take hold in Monterey County, Blue Zones Project found a number of ways to meet the uncertainty and never-before-seen challenges. DiTullio notes one simple question led the project’s efforts: What can we do to support the community?

“That really meant looking to our sponsors to see how we could potentially support some of the efforts they were making in the community. For example, Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System and their approach to educating farm workers with respect to COVID, increasing food access and access to prescriptions for seniors. Really just looking to align with the organizations that needed volunteers and connect them with our Blue Zones Project volunteers,” said DiTullio.

The project also quickly pivoted to move their workshops online. Digital content was provided to schools to integrate and align with their current curriculum, so students still felt engaged despite being in remote settings. And, a significant social media campaign was developed to drive awareness and connection to Blue Zones Project-approved restaurants—promoting takeout and highlighting menus in order to support local businesses that have been hit especially hard by the pandemic.

Looking Towards a Bright Future

As the project continues to expand to South Monterey County and the Peninsula cities, DiTullio is enthusiastic about the potential for progress particularly in one of the project’s main focus areas: food access.

“One of the things I'm most excited about is any opportunity we have for capacity building. We started a pilot project at Salinas Valley Medical Clinic at Prime Care, with the support of a very passionate physician, Dr. Joanna Oppenheim. We've been able to integrate food and security questions into the patient screening process. If a need is identified, the Healthcare System is able to provide resources and referrals to help bridge that need,” explains DiTullio. “I just think there are so many great organizations in Monterey County working to meet the food access need, that raising awareness and utilization of those programs is really critical.”

How you can get involved

To learn more about all the programs in which Blue Zones Project is involved, visit www.BlueZonesProjectMontereyCounty.com. From there, you can also link to their social media accounts to get the latest updates.