The Dalles is among three Oregon towns being considered for a Blue Zone Project, which would bring three years of paid staff to help create a healthier community.
The five full-time employees would work with a broad range of entities, from churches to schools to local governments and grocery stores. Other towns with the Blue Zone Project designation have seen lower health care costs, improved productivity and a higher quality of life.
The Dalles rose to that finalist position after being one of eight communities selected for a site visit last fall, said Lauren Kraemer, an extension agent with Oregon State University who is spearheading the application effort in The Dalles.
To earn the Blue Zone designation, the town needs to come up with $200,000 in matching funds the first year, and $300,000 each of the next two years, Kraemer said. But Blue Zone will match the money four to one, and will bring in about $1 million each year to fund five full-time employees.
It already has $87,000 pledged as local match for the first year, Kraemer said.
A series of public meetings with updates and opportunities to ask questions about the selection process and Blue Zone communities are set for next week.
On Thursday, Jan. 19, meetings are set for 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. and then from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. On Friday, Jan. 20, two more meetings will be held, from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. and then from 10:30 to noon. All meetings are at One Community Health (formerly La Clinica) Conference Room located at 1040 Webber Street, The Dalles.
Blue Zone is the brainchild of a man who worked for National Geographic and scoured the globe looking for the places where people lived the longest. He found five clusters of longevity, in towns in Italy, Greece, Costa Rica, Japan, and in Loma Linda, Calif.
He found that commonalities among the long lived included not just the obvious markers of eating healthy and exercising, but also more intangible things like having a sense of purpose and belonging to a faith community.
Blue Zone projects are largely sponsored by insurance companies, and are described as “kind of reverse engineering a community to make it more healthy,” a project proponent said earlier.
Kraemer said that since The Dalles is a top three finalist, it now comes down to whether the community can find money for the local match.
Pledges so far for the first year match are: $50,000 from Mid-Columbia Medical Center; $10,000 from Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital; $10,000 from Columbia Gorge Health Council; $5,000 from Oregon State University Extension; and Columbia Gorge Community college has pledged office space, worth $12,000.
Klamath Falls is already a Blue Zone community, and in that town, the local hospital has pledged most of the local match, Kraemer said.
Kraemer hopes that businesses in The Dalles and the gorge look at the good things happening in Klamath Falls, and are persuaded to pledge dollars.
“Fred Meyer has a location in Klamath Falls and after having Blue Zones there they had the highest employee satisfaction of all the Fred Meyer locations in the state of Oregon,” she said.
Kraemer has reached out to local businesses and governments for support. She said she is hopeful they will help contribute to the local match once they learn about the benefits it brings to communities. Towns in Iowa that became Blue Zone Projects reportedly saw obesity drop 15 percent and smoking drop 16 percent among the population.
Employers in that same area reported a 20 percent decrease in city worker health care claims. Blue Zone staff helped secure funds for bike paths and pedestrian bridges, and 10 percent more kids were walking to school.
In California, Blue Zone communities saw a 50 percent reduction in childhood obesity, and students walked 45,000 miles the past school year through the Walking School Bus program.
In Albert Lea, Minn., smoking dropped 17 percent, and downtown revitalization and vibrancy was boosted by a walkable community design that saw a 66 percent increase in pedestrian counts from 2014 to 2015 downtown.
A local grocery store there saw a 12 percent increase in produce sales, a 35.5 percent increase in frozen fruits and vegetable purchases, and a 52.3 percent increase in water sales. A local employer there saw a 34 percent decrease in health insurance claims from 2012 to 2014.
The Blue Zone project encourages citizens to adopt the healthy habits found in those who live longest.
Those include spending time with family, attending church regularly, eating less meat and more plants, enjoying a glass of wine each day with good friends, eating mindfully and stopping when 80 percent full, finding ways to move more, surrounding yourself with people who support positive behaviors, and reversing disease by finding a stress relief strategy that works for you.
The Blue Zone project casts a community-wide net, and seeks well-being improvement through citizens, at worksites, in grocery stores and restaurants, at schools, through faith-based communities and through community policy.