Edible Monterey Bay

Blue Zones Comes to Monterey County to Make Healthy Easy

January 12, 2021 – Lots of high-voltage strategic meetings and careful calculations have gone into the ambitious and expanding Blue Zones Project in 10 communities around the United States, including Salinas. Along the way BZP has engaged healthcare providers, wide swaths of local business, scores of schools, local governments, millions of individuals and boatloads of data.

But at its core Blue Zones comes down to three words: Make healthy easy. 

Blue Zone mall walkers in Salinas

BZP’s got its local start in the Salad Bowl of the World two years ago. Now its expansion from Salinas to all of Monterey County has officially kicked off after a Zoom gathering last week.

The original inspiration reaches further back and much farther afield. More than 15 years ago, author and National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner first wrote about a handful of places around the world, which he called Blue Zones, where the local population lived up to 12 years longer than average—and tended to avoid chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

“If we can find the optimal lifestyle of longevity, we can come up with a de facto formula for longevity,” Buettner says in opening a TED Talk titled “How to Live to Be 100+.” “But if you ask the average American what the formula is…they probably couldn’t tell you.”

On the TED stage, Buettner points out that about 90 percent of how long a person lives is dictated by lifestyle versus genes, then describes those communities with the most staying power, including Sardinia, Okinawa and the Seventh-day Adventist city of Loma Linda, California.

People living in those places share patterns: Each has physical movement built into their existence, whether it is regular hikes (Loma Linda), stair climbing (Sardinia) or getting up from or sitting down on the floor constantly (Okinawa). Each maintain plant-driven diets. Each prioritize clear purpose in life and respect for elders. Each incorporates mandatory down time. And each values connection to others, whether that’s through family, friends, faith-based communities or all of the above.

The Blue Zones Project grew out of that understanding. Launched by Buettner in Albert Lea, Minnesota in 2009, the project exports those community habits by setting up built and educational environments for greater physical activity, neighborhood walkability, smart food choices and more.

School garden at Los Padres Elementary School in Salinas

That’s what has happened in Salinas after a requested site visit in 2018. When Blue Zones Project officials confirmed the city demonstrated the need, sponsors, and foundational pieces for its participation, stakeholders got to work. 

BZP partnered with three big-time sponsors in Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital, Taylor Farms and Montage Health, which administers Community Hospital for Monterey Peninsula. After a six-month period of research starting in fall 2018, on-the-ground interventions began in June 2019. 

Ongoing efforts include teaming up with restaurants like Main Street Bakery to provide and highlight healthier vegetable-centric options; schools like Los Padres Elementary to educate kids and construct gardens; businesses like Ocean Mist Farms and Pacific Valley to furnish employee resources and health incentives; and residents to help them workshop what makes them feel the greatest purpose. Zesty recipes, helpful articles and a meal planner are also made easy to access at the Blue Zones Monterey County website. 

Nationally, Blue Zones Project can already point to millions of dollars of healthcare savings, dips in employee absenteeism, double digit drops in obesity, smoking and body mass index. 

Blue Zones outreach event at Northridge Mall

One of the simple tools project leaders consider crucial is a pledge they invite residents to consider. It breaks into five components: 

  1. I will move naturally more often throughout the day.
  2. I will discover my purpose and renew my spirit.
  3. I will meet new friends who will help change my life for the better.
  4. I will eat more fruits and vegetables and be mindful of all else that I eat.
  5. I will take time for myself and find ways to relieve stress.

In the wake of the kickoff event, Edible Monterey Bay touched base with Monterey County Blue Zones executive director Tiffany M.  DiTullio to learn more about those components and specifics surrounding Blue Zones in this part of California.

Blue Zones Project executive director for Monterey County Tiffany DiTullio

EMB: Most important questions first. What is the “Tiffany Bowl” I’m hearing good things about?

DiTullio: Oh my gosh it’s so good. It’s a dish at [BZP partner] Guadalajara Grill on Main Street in Salinas, a modified version of their tostada salad. Instead of a deep-fried tortilla bowl, Spanish rice, refried beans, meat and cheese, it’s brown rice, whole beans, grilled veggies, guacamole and salsa. Honestly it’s one of my favorite things to eat. I eat it too many times a week. 

What’s most functional for our readers to learn about Blue Zones Project?

That it feels lofty, conceptually, but when you look at the pledge it seems too easy: Move around, eat fruits and vegetables, walk my dog. It can be polarizing for people—they hear what it is, then they see the pledge and say, it can’t be that simple. But that’s what BZP is about: the small incremental change individuals make for a healthier lifestyle. 

OK—on one hand it’s simple but on the other it’s such a multifaceted and multilayered endeavor. Can it be hard to sum up?

I describe it as a geographically based, community-by-community, comprehensive approach to well-being that drives measurable improvement in key metrics.

Why is geography important?

Wellness and wellbeing looks a little different in each community. We know a few things about our county: There’s a lack of access to fresh produce. Two-thirds of the population is overweight or obese. Roughly half is diabetic or pre-diabetic. Those are things that will cascade. And things like built environment—Monterey’s might be more advanced than something in South County—also vary. That understanding helps us create a different blueprint based on specific needs, foundational work and where we think we can make the best impact.

Please give me the short version of Salinas progress—and what your and your team are most proud of?

On the policy front, the things we are most proud of are collaboration with the Monterey County Health Department for smoke-free parks and our work with the city in identifying the need for a “vision zero plan,” to reduce walking and biking fatalities with vehicles and slow zones with schools. Those are some of the early wins. With work sites, we have 13 approved Blue Zones work sites impacting large employers in a way that provides well-being for their employees. We’re doing great work in schools revitalizing gardens and improving the overall environment. An unforeseen benefit with COVID is being a reference for education on things like tobacco prevention and Rethink Your Drink, so we are viewed as a resource and partner. Working with restaurants has been great too—there are so many phenomenal restaurants locally—as we ask, “How can we increase people coming by making menus friendlier for all?” 

Just thinking about the number of local and regional governments and bureaucracies and people you’re engaging as stakeholders gives me a mild headache. How do you pull it off?

The reason Taylor Farms, Salinas Valley Memorial and Montage are supporting it is because they absolutely care about the community. When we’re able to focus on that, it opens doors. When they understand we’re not here to take credit—in fact, we don’t want credit—people respond. This project is driven by people who are passionate about the community, and we can all do more when we acknowledge we’re working toward the same goal and can support each other to make it happen.

What have you found to be the most effective avenues in achieving healthcare savings and dips in things like employee absenteeism, obesity, smoking, and body mass index?

It’s awareness. Think of the concept of know-your-numbers campaign: You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken. People may think of wellbeing as a big, almost-scary thing. When you can bring it down to something palpable—you don’t have to go to a gym to be in shape, you can walk to the neighborhood park, that’s big. What Blue Zones does is bring it down to something anyone can do. When we say “Plant Slant” [which de-prioritizes meat], it doesn’t mean be a vegetarian, it means look for opportunities to incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables, encouraging people to look at it like, “I the individual have the capacity to make change for me.”

What does success look like for Blue Zones? 

For me it’s when a parent comes home from work having learned at her work site about diabetes, and when little Johnny was at school he learned about math and science in the school garden and he says, “You would not believe what we learned!” then they go to Guadalajara Grill, or to Nob Hill Foods and use the Healthy Checkout Lanes where no sugar sweetened products are offered and it’s only healthy grab-and-go.

We want to make the healthy choice the easy choice. People grab Snickers because they’re bored. We’re about setting up the environment for success, so you can’t help but choose well. It’s like stealing a concept from fast food. They might not even like it, but it’s fast, it’s right there and it’s inexpensive. We have to do that with healthy foods.

What would surprise people about Blue Zones, writ large and locally?

The policy work. One of the things we do is identify common goals and find out what role we can play in helping to elevate and accelerate that work. Also: what we’re doing in schools to reach students and teachers during COVID. We really go to where the majority of people are and try to engage them. 

What are the best ways for citizens to participate? 

For individuals, they can go to our website and register. www.bluezones.com

Once you do that, you receive a newsletter, free resources, and notifications for when programs happen in the area. For organizations, you can sign up right there too. 

Individual engagement is so important: That’s how you create change. If they want to participate, they can get engaged in things like the Steps Challenge, Plant Slant, volunteer opportunities, and focus group participation, especially in expansion areas. The goal is to see what the community wants to see. It’s their project, we’re just here to make it happen. 

What is your favorite response from someone who has discovered Blue Zones?

Two [types of] people pop straight to mind. One is people who have tried everything before. Every gym, every diet, every everything. When they realize the small incremental approach is sustainable, they have their aha moment.

My all-time favorite is people who come to our Purpose Workshops who are dragged there by a spouse and at the end of purpose workshop they come up and say how much just going through the process helped them find clarity. Maybe they’ve just retired, just graduated, and sense a pivotal change in their life. I would do Purpose WorkshopsCK all day every day if I could. 

One of your staffers describes you as “a superwoman who walks (and hikes, runs, paddles) the Blue Zones talk.” With that in mind, when do you feel most alive? 

I feel most alive with anything outside. I participated in the [Blue Zone’sCK] 52-Hike Challenge last year and wrapped it with 148 hikes. I love all of the open space here. It’s free and it’s accessible, which are reasons I like hiking, especially if I can do it at a sunrise or sunset. And there are so many places to do it locally. 

When do you feel most helpful?

I am somebody who loves collaboration. I love to learn about what people do in the community and align them with people who do something similar or have the same goal and elevate their impact. When they can push that goal together over the hill, that’s when I feel most helpful. 

For more visit Blue Zones Project Monterey County via its website or Facebook page.