CEDAR RAPIDS — Blue Zones swept across Iowa a few years ago with blue balloons, “Live Longer Better” T-shirts and big celebrations as officials sought to make this the healthiest state in the nation.
But many communities — including Marion, Iowa City and now Cedar Rapids — have quietly dropped out, finding it too expensive.
Blue Zones is a concept based on a book by author Dan Buettner suggesting that the built environment can make healthy living an easy choice — one that makes people live longer and happier with fewer health complications.
Fifteen Iowa communities were selected among 85 applicants as Blue Zones cities between 2012 and 2014.
City leaders passed pedestrian and bike friendly policies. Public yoga sessions flowed at community spaces. Restaurants crafted healthier menus. Schools added walk-to-school programs. Workplaces adopted wellness programs and installed bike racks. Grocery stores offered approved groceries.
“Through Blue Zones, we were able to engage so much of the community,” said Stephanie Schrader, the well-being liaison for Cedar Rapids. Fruit and vegetable consumption increased 6 percent, community gardens sprouted and bike lanes and trails were added, she said.
Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield invested $25 million over five years to sponsor the Blue Zones initiative, greatly reducing the investments cities needed to make themselves. But Wellmark did not renew its contract, leaving the entire bill for cities to pick up.
Cedar Rapids’ certification ends this month. Iowa City let its contract lapse in January.
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“Cost was a factor as we would have to pay to continue to use the brand and tap into their Blue Zones network,” said Geoff Fruin, Iowa City manager.
While some communities are pulling out, they don’t view the Blue Zones experiment as a waste — but rather the inspiration for new programs and a philosophical shift. Iowa City, for example, incorporated Blue Zones principles into its bike and parks master plans.
“Blue Zones gave us a strong foundation, but the cost was outside what we were willing to pay to continue,” said Sara Mentzer, coordinator for Be Well Marion, which is Marion’s post-Blue Zones effort. The city’s Blue Zones certification expired in December.
Marion joined a new Wellmark initiative created in November 2016 called Healthy Hometown, which is reminiscent of Blue Zones but is seen as more flexible and is free to join. The pillars are “move more, feel better, eat well.”
Other Blue Zones communities also are transitioning to Healthy Hometown. Cedar Rapids, Mason City and Sioux City have already received Healthy Hometown community awards at a ceremony last week. Marion won an award in 2016.
Cedar Rapids was selected as a Blue Zones demonstration site in 2013 and certified in 2016.
Cedar Rapids contributed up to $25,000 a year matched by $30,000 over three years from Linn County, and about $50,000 total in private contributions to pay for four full time staff members and office space, said Assistant City Manager Sandi Fowler.
She said the fee to renew with Blue Zones is considered proprietary information, and therefore was confidential.
“Had we contracted with Blue Zones after the existing certification ends at the end of February, the Cedar Rapids community would have needed to pay for all of those services — resources that were previously part of the award,” Fowler said.
Now, the city has just one half-time position supporting Healthy Hometown, she said.
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Blue Zones was the centerpiece of the “Healthiest State Initiative,” an effort backed by then-Gov. Terry Branstad to become the healthiest state by 2016. The belief was that the state could save $16 billion over five years in health care costs. However, Iowa’s ranking in the Gallup Well Being Index slipped from No. 16 in 2012 to No. 21 in 2017.
Teresa Roof, a spokeswoman for Wellmark, said after the Blue Zones contract ended the company surveyed communities about what they needed for a program to be sustainable. That led to Healthy Hometown.
“Based on what we heard and our ongoing work, it is evident that communities realize the value of keeping citizens healthier and the best way to do that is through a community-based approach which is making a difference in transforming the environment in which Iowans live, work and play,” she said.
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