Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Marion named Blue Zones demonstration sites

Implementation in Cedar Rapids to begin this year

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Leaders in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Marion and three other Iowa cities were celebrating on Tuesday after winning designation as Blue Zone communities.

All three Corridor communities were passed over in 2012 in a first round of competition when Cedar Falls, Waterloo, Mason City and Spencer were named the state’s first Blue Zone communities, a status that brings funding and staff support into a community to help it implement a program of health initiatives.

Cedar Rapids has received its designation for 2013, and Stephanie Neff, deputy director of Linn County Public Health, on Tuesday said the plan is to have an office open and ready to go by March 1. The staff will include three staff members supported by Blue Zones Project funding and three supported locally, either by local funding or the lending of staff members to the initiative, Neff said.

Iowa City and Marion will begin their Blue Zone programs in 2014 along with Oskaloosa. Muscatine and Sioux City will start in 2013 with Cedar Rapids.

The Blue Zones initiative dovetails with Gov. Terry Branstad’s healthiest-state initiative and is funded with a $25 million grant over five years from Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett on Wednesday said being passed over for the Blue Zone designation in 2012 only made Cedar Rapids work harder to achieve it.

"Health and the cost of health care are on everybody’s mind," the mayor said. "And one of the ways to improve health and reduce your costs is to have a healthier lifestyle. So we’ve supported the governor from Day 1 when he said he wanted to make Iowa the healthiest states in the country. We want to help in that effort by making Cedar Rapids the healthiest city in Iowa."

Corbett said the Blue Zone designation will produce tangible changes in the community.

By way of example, he pointed to the success that Cedar Rapids city officials and their representatives on the metro area’s Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization have had in diverting a significant share of transportation funds that come to the MPO to trails and bikeways and away from roads.

Corbett said Cedar Rapids city officials now are asking the governor to change the state’s existing Vision Iowa Community Attraction and Tourism program to include grants to help communities build public infrastructure like trails to encourage more walking.

Dee Baird, president/CEO of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, on Wednesday said the Blue Zone designation is another indicator that Cedar Rapids is a "progressive" community, which she said brings with it economic dividends.

"We know there is a connection between the initiative of creating a healthy environment in Cedar Rapids and our effort to advance economic growth and prosperity inn our region."

In Iowa City, Nancy Quellhorst, president/CEO of the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce, on Wednesday said that she was "elated" with the Blue Zone designation even if the outside funding and staff support will be coming next year, not in 2013. The Blue Zone program has only so much ability to launch the initiative in different cities in the same year, she reasoned.

Quellhorst said the Blue Zone effort in Iowa City will come up with a blueprint designed to permanently change the community. Some of the ideas for change may include encouraging schools to serve the right foods, restaurant to emphasize healthier choices and grocery stores to better label food.

The Blue Zone idea is based on a book by Dan Buettner, who came up with the term "blue zones" for the places he researched with the longest life expectancy. He found that people in those places tincorporated natural movement into everyday life and had strong social bonds, Quellhorst said.

She pointed to the blue zone pilot project in Albert Lea, Minn., which put Buettner’s ideas into practice beginning in 2009 and saw the life expectancies of its residents extended and sick days and health care costs reduced.

"The idea is to nudge the community to make healthier decisions," Quellhorst said. "We know that exercise and eating better is not generally sustainable, so how do we create an environment to make the healthy choice easier?"

In the Blue Zone announcement event in Des Moines on Wednesday, Gov. Branstad was on hand to help break the news. Heavy snow kept the Cedar Rapids contingent, for one, from attending.

"I truly believe this is the opportunity to change in our state," Branstad said. "We’re trying to turn this big battleship that was headed in the wrong direction."

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