Community and Volunteers Take the Reins on Blue Zone Project

Published: Jan. 20, 2016 at 10:43 PM CST
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People in Cedar Rapids are working to improve the community, as funding runs out for Blue Zones staff members.

Those involved said this isn't the end of the program, it's just the beginning of the next phase.

Blue Zones is a designation given to schools, businesses and cities that make a commitment to improve health and wellbeing. More than a dozen Iowa towns are certified Blue Zone sites or are working toward it. They include Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Marion, Waterloo and Cedar Falls.

Three years ago, Cedar Rapids received funding when it became recognized as a Blue Zones Demonstration Site. That money from Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield funded Blue Zones staff positions who worked to get schools, businesses and others involved in making healthy changes.

There’s a lot of blue this week at Coe College as people wear shirts with the Blue Zones logo. The school is celebrating as it becomes an official Blue Zones Worksite.

"It has probably been about a year in progress that we've started working on it,” said Coe College Director of Wellness Emily Barnard.

The college has incorporated more health options for staff and faculty.

"It's really just making those choices a little bit easier for people,” Barnard said.

As the school cut the ribbon for their success, the funding for the Blue Zones project staffing is gone. Cedar Rapids Assistant City Manager Sandi Fowler said this wasn't the end of the project.

“I would say it's just starting,” Fowler said.

Fowler said now the city and volunteers will take over a lot of the work through a new Wellbeing Advisory Committee, which the city council approved on January 12.

"We will form a group of nine individuals who have the wellbeing of our community in their hearts and minds and skills and serve as a recommending body to the city council for all those community efforts that have traditionally been born out of the Blue Zones project,” Fowler said.

Stephanie Neff used to work as a Blue Zones staff member, but she just moved to a new job. She said this is exactly how it's all supposed to work. The project educates and encourages communities to sustain Blue Zones without those staff members who used to lead the way. The funding was always set to expire at the end of January of 2016.

"The efforts that we have started will continue in the community because there are lots of champions and advocates,” Neff said.

Despite the changes, city leaders said they're planning to see more ribbon cutting ceremonies in the future as businesses and organizations continue to reach their goals.

The city said it has spent about $25,000 a year on the Blue Zones Project and plans to keep doing that.

The next step in the process, following the first three-years in existence, is to receive that coveted "certified" community status. That's something that happens once the community reaches benchmarks through the Blue Zones project, like a certain number of people who signed pledges to make healthy changes. Blue Zones staff members said a review process is expected to wrap up in the next couple of weeks that'll determine if Cedar Rapids got that title. They also said that's when Iowa City should also learn if it received certification.