Iowa City eyes Blue Zone Project for health


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It was a rather unusual Tuesday morning at the Iowa City Public Library. Amid the usual coming and going of visitors, some recognized community members were doing the hokey-pokey in one of the library’s meeting rooms.

Everyone from School Board President Patti Fields to Johnson County Public Health Director Doug Beardsley was seen moving it all around during what was Iowa City’s presentation to woo delegates from the Blue Zones Project.

What started as a quest to research communities with the highest longevity of life in 2004 has now become a revolution to transform American communities into healthier hubs by applying the knowledge attained from that research.

Communities with the Blue Zones designation are expected to make some changes in restaurants, schools, grocery stores, work sites, city policy, and even individuals.

Beardsley said that while Iowa City is already healthier than the average Iowa town, a Blue Zones designation would combine efforts from various walks of Iowa City life and put them under one common banner. 

He encouraged community members to visit bluezonesproject.com and take one of the many pledges. This would increase Iowa City’s chances of qualifying as a Blue Zone demonstration site.

Iowa Blue Zones Director Mary Lawyer said the initiative was brought to Iowa by Wellmark, with a basic aim of improving health standards and longevity by changing the environment. If selected, Iowa City residents can expect some major changes in the way they eat, work, and play.

“You are going to see changes in all your environments,” she said, outlining the scenario if Iowa City were to get selected. “You will see smaller plates at restaurants, healthier choices in grocery stores, parking spaces farther away from destinations to encourage walking.”

Lawyer said policy changes would include more smoke-free zones and increased engagement at work places.

Bruce Middlebrooks, the director of corporate communications at Blue Zones Project, said similar changes have been made at its offices.

“We have no fried food at our cafeteria,” he said. “They have been replaced with salad bars. And we have a boot camp on site to ensure all our employees lead healthy lifestyles.”

Ten Iowa towns will be selected to go blue. Cedar Falls, Mason City, Spencer, and Waterloo were selected as the first four Iowa communities for the Blue Zones Project demonstration sites in May. Iowa City is among 12 cities vying for the last six spots — they include Altoona, Burlington, Marion, Cedar Rapids, Muscatine, Clinton, Ottumwa, Davenport, Oskaloosa, Dubuque, and Sioux City.

The project was brought to Iowa City by the Iowa City Chamber of Commerce. President Nancy Quellhorst said after having submitted the application on behalf of the city, it now plays the role of a convener.

“Large business, small businesses, and the media are all working together on this initiative,” she said. “We are the ones that are providing a structure to the organization. We know that one of the most critical elements of the application process is community engagement.”

She said the project is a unique opportunity that every single citizen can benefit from.

“If we work on making the healthy choice the easy choice, and our restaurant menus default to a side of salad instead of French fries, that is going to affect everybody,” she said. “I can’t think of anything more important.”

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