When the shelter-in-place order came down in March, the folks at the Blue Zones Project had to make a hard pivot.
The initiative to elevate health consciousness was launched in Salinas in 2018, working with, among others, school and office workers. When shelter-in-place came down and many office workers and students were told to stay home, much of those efforts had to go virtual. But that didn’t deter project organizers.
“We did the exact opposite of shutting down,” says Blue Zones Project Executive Director Tiffany DiTullio.
Now, the project has announced it is expanding county-wide.
“Most communities probably wouldn’t do an expansion in the middle of a pandemic but our partners are equally committed to community well-being and investing in the community,” says DiTullio. “The fact that we’re expanding right now, I think speaks volumes.”
The project is based on research conducted by author Dan Buettner on five cultures globally called the “blue zones.” From these blue zones — which are the areas with the highest concentrations of people who live to be 100 or older — nine common principles of living were identified, such as increased physical activity and diets high in fruits and vegetables.
Currently, the project is in place in communities in 10 states outside California.
Since it was established in Salinas, the Blue Zones Project has collaborated with local schools, restaurants, worksites, and more to run programs encouraging healthy eating and lifestyle choices. Now, the initiative which partners with Salinas Valley Memorial Health System, Montage Health and Taylor Farms will be expanding their healthy living programs from Salinas to the entire county.
When the pandemic hit, social distancing restrictions prevented the in-person community engagement the project was used to. As the team adapted to virtual work, the restrictions inevitably impacted the ability for the project to implement all its goals.
“Some of our things that we wanted to do, it’s not practical to do right now,” says Laura Zehm, the chief administrative officer at Montage Health.
“If an outcome that we wanted in Salinas was a certain change to the school menus, well that didn’t happen, right? Because the kids aren’t in school,” she says.
Still, despite the practical challenges, the team has been busier than ever.
One of the ways the project has adapted to remote engagement is by offering virtual workshops, such as cooking classes. According to Lisa Wegley, Engagement Lead for Blue Zones Project, the cooking demos became an unexpected hit. So far, the team has only offered three, but Wegley says they’re on the lookout for chefs to partner with next.
Another way the project has adapted is by changing the format of existing programs. In October, Blue Zones puts on a “To The Moon Challenge” which encourages community members to walk or bike to work. The challenge usually lasts a week, but this year the project turned it into a month-long event that encouraged families to walk together for healthy activity.
Every week, a different agency put on a different activity to keep community members engaged, such as a family Moai — a type of social support group where members meet and walk through the community.
“We’re just finding different, creative ways to come out of the box,” says Wegley. “I almost want to say that it’s setting us up for when we are out of a pandemic.”
DiTullio believes the remote technology they’ve been able to leverage will continue to assist the project even after social distancing is no longer necessary.
“I don’t know that we had the knowledge of how much offering these virtual assets would enable us to reach people we possibly couldn’t have reached before,” says DiTullio.
“When we move out of this pandemic environment, these virtual assets won’t go away — they will just be an accent to our project. They will be integrated in everything that we do.”
To Pete Delgado, president of the Salinas Valley Memorial Health System, the effective rollout of the project in Salinas will make expansion into the Monterey Peninsula easier, even in light of the challenges brought about by the pandemic. He calls the team put together by DiTullio a “dream team of talented folks.”
“We’ve seen the success in Salinas,” says Delgado. “And we’re very excited about taking this project county-wide.”
Contributed by local news sources