MARION — Marion becomes the first in the Corridor to win designation as a “Blue Zones” city, meeting requirements for implementing healthy initiatives in the community, it announced Monday.
The Blue Zones Project is an element of Gov. Terry Branstad’s Healthiest State Initiative, which aims to make Iowa the healthiest state in the nation by 2016.
In all, 15 Iowa cities have received funding and staffing to help bring about healthy initiatives. Marion kicked off its efforts in 2013.
Most of those cities, including Cedar Falls and Waterloo on the edge of the Corridor, already have received the designation. Three others, including Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, are still working toward it.
Cities can achieve Blue Zone status by getting restaurants to offer healthier options, removing junk food from vending machines at schools and businesses and implementing citywide policies to create a healthier environment — like Marion’s nicotine ban that went in effect in city parks in September.
While cities receive staffing and grant funding to try to establish a zone, they don’t receive extra funding after achieving it.
But, advocates say, it can lead to lower health care costs and higher productivity and make a city a better place to live.
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“The health of our city is part of our brand,” said Sara Mentzer, Blue Zones coordinator for Marion. “It’s about creating a healthy community to raise a family, for businesses to grow.”
In addition to the city initiatives, the designation requires commitments from residents as well as employers, merchants and schools.
Becoming a tobacco-free campus and having longer recess times are examples of steps schools can take. Employers can offer wellness screenings and volunteer opportunities. And restaurants can create menus with healthier options.
Marion wants to become the healthiest city in Iowa, said City Manager Lon Pluckhahn.
“This was a really good way for us to move down that path,” he said.
And it’s also good for bringing businesses into the community, said Jill Ackerman, president of the Marion Chamber of Commerce.
“We know that insurance costs are very high for employers and for them to be able to provide affordable benefits to employees is really important,” she said. “If we can give community members and employees of businesses in Marion ways they can be healthier, the idea is that will eventually drive down health care costs or keep them at bay.”