How Blue Zones Project Southwest Florida is Creating Community-Wide Well-Being Through Collective Impact

 

“In communities with higher well-being, we have found that people live longer, happier lives, and business and local economies flourish. A reliable well-being metric provides community and business leaders with the data and insights they need to help make sustained transformation a reality. After all, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” – Dan Buettner, Blue Zones founder.

In communities with higher well-being, we have found that people live longer, happier lives, and business and local economies flourish. Click To Tweet

The well-being of individuals and communities is intricately linked to the places they inhabit. Our environment plays a crucial role in shaping our lifestyles, choices, and overall health. In communities designed for higher well-being, people tend to live longer, happier lives and local economies thrive. Drawing inspiration from the world’s blue zones—places known for the longevity, health, and overall well-being of their residents—the Blue Zones Project aims to implement the principles of the world’s blue zones in communities like Southwest Florida, focusing on implementing policies and optimizing environments across the community and in everyday settings such as workplaces, grocery stores, restaurants, and schools.

Southwest Florida, with its diverse ecosystems and vibrant coastal communities, was selected as a unique canvas for this transformational project. Blue Zones Project’s central goal was to create incremental changes that could catalyze healthier lifestyle choices and ultimately lead to enhanced vitality for the entire population. Its transformation was guided by principles gleaned from the world’s blue zones, such as making movement a natural part of daily life, promoting a sense of purpose, prioritizing stress relief, promoting mindful, nutritious, and plant-slanted food choices, moderating alcohol consumption, connecting with the community, and promoting social connections which encourage healthy behaviors. Naturally integrating these principles into community design has the potential to impact health outcomes significantly, from reducing obesity rates and chronic disease prevalence to enhancing mental health and overall well-being.

The food system served as a crucial starting point for implementing these changes in Southwest Florida. Stakeholders from various fields were actively involved in revising the region’s food-related practices. Their activities included forming a Food Policy Council, organizing a Food Policy Summit, and transforming a local market into a center for nutritious food. Restaurants and grocery stores were also included in the transformation, with many venues introducing healthier menu options and educating their staff and customers about the interconnected lifestyle characteristics of the longest-lived people in the world. These initiatives collectively emphasized the importance of healthier dietary choices.

Worksites also saw remarkable changes driven by Blue Zones Project’s efforts to transform work environments into spaces that prioritize health and productivity so that the healthy choices are the easy, oftentimes unavoidable choices. For instance, at JW Marriott on Marco Island, policies were adopted to offer healthier food options, incorporate regular physical activity breaks, foster better interpersonal relationships, and improve fitness facilities for employees.

Blue Zones Project Southwest Florida implemented programming in schools to create a more conducive environment for students’ well-being and help students get into the habit of healthy living. In total, 43 schools incorporated these principles into their activities. This integration included infusing physical activity into lesson plans, creating school gardens, and actively participating in national physical activity events.

Furthermore, faith-based communities and homeowners associations played a pivotal role in fostering better community relationships. These organizations created open safe spaces for residents to actively engage in social activities, workshops to cultivate a sense of meaning, and other initiatives that created healthier neighborhood connections.

All these transformations were made possible by a strong network of local partnerships established by the Blue Zones Project. Collaborating strategically with various entities fostered a collective sense of responsibility and effort. By leveraging the strengths of various local entities, Blue Zones Project instigated significant community-wide transformations and set a solid foundation for future health initiatives. In 2022, after seven years of transformation and innovation, the Southwest Florida communities of Naples, Immokalee, Ave Maria, Bonita Springs, Estero, Golden Gate, East Naples, and Marco Island achieved Blue Zones Community® certification, marking the first places to earn the designation in Florida as well as the Southeast U.S. The certification recognizes the measurable success of Southwest Florida’s well-being transformation. As the project continues to flourish, it serves as an inspiring example for other regions seeking to create well-being through collective action and sustainable change.

By leveraging the strengths of various local entities, Blue Zones Project instigated significant community-wide transformations and set a solid foundation for future health initiatives. Click To Tweet

1 Creating Collective Impact Through Partnerships 

2 Social Networks and Social Change

3 Making the Healthy Choice the Easy Choice

4 Healthy Food Environments

5 Fostering a Sense of Meaning

6 Clean Air in Public Spaces

7 Health Promotion Through the Workplace

8 Changing Menus and Grocery Aisles

9 Transforming Schools for Healthy Outcomes

10 A Journey of Lasting Change and Continuous Progress

Local partners celebrate the completion of work on Marco Island’s Yellowbird Road. 

Creating Collective Impact Through Partnerships 

In Southwest Florida, the Blue Zones Project was created and sustained through numerous local partnerships, a testament to the power of collaborative efforts in transforming places for health and wellbeing. An alliance with the Immokalee Community Redevelopment Agency marked a significant milestone in infrastructure enhancement. Through a robust $22.8 Million TIGER grant, they embarked on a transformative project to overhaul the Lake Trafford Road corridor and support plans for Complete Streets. This accomplishment highlighted the power of inter-agency cooperation, showcasing how strategic partnerships can pool essential resources to drive community improvements.

Similarly, the joint efforts of state senators, congresspeople, government officials, and local service providers resulted in improvements on West Terry Street. Their collaboration proved instrumental in securing funds from Community Development Block Grants and BUILD and TIGER grants. This led to a two-fold outcome, boosting infrastructural development and stimulating community engagement.

Collaborative efforts were not limited to infrastructure enhancements alone. In propagating healthier lifestyle choices, Collier County and Tobacco Free Collier formed a critical partnership to address the need for clean air in public spaces. To deter public smoking, the partnership supported the installation of non-smoking signs in public areas, an initiative that was also replicated in Bonita Springs through the combined efforts of Tobacco Free Lee, the Department of Health, and the Blue Zones Project. This collaboration was instrumental in ensuring that public spaces were safe environments for social and recreational activities.

Local food businesses such as Key Food Supermarket and Summer Day Market and Café also collaborated with the Blue Zones Project to naturally integrate healthier food choices into their consumer offerings. By remodeling their business strategies to favor healthier choices, they highlighted how private-public cooperation can enhance public health initiatives.

Prominent industry leaders, including JW Marriott and the NCH Healthcare System, aligned with the project to champion workplace wellness. By adopting Blue Zones policies to encourage healthier practices and the overall well-being of staff and customers alike, these organizations set a precedent for ideal work environments.

Similarly, educational institutions like Lake Park Elementary and BCHS collaborated with the project, infusing Blue Zones principles into their school culture. Their efforts nurtured a health-conscious mindset among young learners and created a supportive environment for the children to thrive.

Faith-based organizations and homeowner associations also served as catalysts in championing community well-being. These organizations partnered with the Blue Zones Project to offer residents various workshops, social initiatives, and policy changes that further propagated the formation of fulfilling relationships and ultimately, a healthier lifestyle.

These numerous local partnerships played an instrumental role in the successful implementation of the Blue Zones Project in Southwest Florida. By leveraging the unique strengths of various local entities, the project initiated substantial community-wide transformations, laying a groundwork that future wellbeing efforts can build on.

Social Networks and Social Change

“Social work has always played a strong and significant role in my life as a teacher and as a person. That is one of the reasons I want my girls to continue being of help and serving others.” – Alexandra Castro, a Moai group member.

A central part of the Blue Zones Project ethos is fostering strong social connections. The Project recognizes the transformative power of social networks, which serve a dual purpose of providing an avenue for individuals to contribute to the betterment of their community while also being a space to engage in meaningful social interactions that are also conducive to well-being. Furthermore, social networks, create a positive cascade of social capital, inspiring participants to give back to the community.

Alexandra’s story is a worthwhile reflection of the power of social connections. After relocating to Ave Maria from Texas, Alexandra was faced with the task of forging new relationships in her new community. She found that sense of belonging through joining a Moai, a program designed to facilitate connections and encourage natural movement among their members, as well as attending a Purpose Workshop, and volunteering. Her newfound social network also provided her with a powerful platform for her personal and communal change. Alexandra and her daughters became valuable assets to the community, providing essential translation services for the Hispanic attendees at Blue Zones Project events. Their contributions were particularly instrumental in ensuring smooth communication between the organizers and recipients at United Way’s annual “Build a Bike” initiative in Ave Maria and Immokalee.

Alexandra’s Moai group and the networks she built through her participation in the Blue Zones Project provided her with friendships, a sense of purpose, and an improved sense of well-being. Her story inspired others in her social network to volunteer and participate in the Blue Zones Project.

The Blue Zones Project highlights the power of social networks in fostering a strong sense of community among youth, students, and adults alike. This sense of community extends beyond the individuals involved, influencing the wider community, and facilitating positive social change.

Making the Healthy Choice the Easy Choice

“Blue Zones [Project] is strong in our community because the message is the same wherever you go. You get it at home, at school, at work, in restaurants… Blue Zones [Project] is healthy living.” – Mark Lemke, Health Department, Immokalee Administrator.

The Blue Zones Project also emphasized making healthier choices easier. This was especially visible in Bonita Springs. Being the fastest-growing city in Florida, access to infrastructure did not measure up to its growing population, leading to an increase in crash rates which necessitated safe alternatives to driving. Bonita Springs recognized the need for a new direction that prioritized the safety, quality of life, and economic development of its residents.

The Blue Zones Project played a crucial role in supporting Bonita Springs to create a more connected and livable environment. With a clear vision for the city’s future, the Project provided valuable guidance and support to implement a Complete Streets approach.
Complete Streets are designed to hold space for the needs of a wide range of users including residents who cycle, walk, drive, or use public transit, as well as people of varying abilities and ages. They also consider other uses of streets such as for drainage, sidewalk cafes, street trees, and more. This approach emphasizes the creation of walkable and bike-friendly routes, integrating movement into the daily lives of residents and tourists, and reducing the heavy reliance on cars. The creation of Complete Streets not only improved safety but also fostered a more connected and vibrant community. The positive outcomes of these efforts highlighted the benefits of a Complete Streets approach and enhanced the city’s appeal as a destination for both residents and visitors.

As Darla Letourneau from BikeWalkLee expressed, “In the past three years, the city of Bonita Springs has taken its game to the next level, guided by a clear vision for its future. The city of Bonita has a proven track record and has demonstrated political leadership and commitment to a new direction. There are now projects on the ground that are demonstrating the safety, quality of life, and economic development benefits of a complete streets approach, further building community support.”

The success of the Blue Zones Project in Bonita Springs serves as a powerful example of how making healthier choices easier can positively impact a community’s well-being. By prioritizing pedestrian and cyclist-friendly infrastructure, Blue Zones Project not only enhanced safety but also encouraged physical activity fostered a sense of connectedness, and promoted healthier lifestyles. 

Healthy Food Environments

Promoting healthier eating habits and improving access to fresh, affordable, and nutritious food options has been a central focus of community-driven efforts in Southwest Florida. Many initiatives led by various stakeholders already made significant strides in creating a culture of well-being and making healthier food choices more accessible to all.

Recognizing the region’s diverse culinary influences, which blend Southern, Latin American, Creole, and other cultural elements, the Blue Zones Project strived to promote a plant-forward diet and raise awareness of its benefits. With the advantage of a warm climate and proximity to the ocean, Collier and Lee Counties have year-round access to fresh vegetables and fruits—the foundation for a healthy diet.

In promoting healthier food choices, the Blue Zones Project undertook actions that included convening a Food Policy Committee consisting of grocers, restauranteurs, farmers, policymakers, and other stakeholders. This committee explored opportunities to adopt healthy food policies and collaborated to create innovative solutions. A food policy summit was also held in November 2019 and featured experts who discussed actionable steps to improve the region’s food system.

An instrumental outcome of these efforts was the establishment of the SWFL Food Policy Council in 2020, which secured $1.2 million in grant funding from sources like the USDA, Aetna Foundation, and Community Development Block Grants. This council has spearheaded initiatives like the MEANS Database food rescue program, which has preserved over 134,000 pounds of food, predominantly fresh produce, from going to waste. The food is redirected to local food banks and pantries, providing nutritious options for those in need.

Local businesses also played a crucial role in contributing to the community’s well-being. Wynn’s Market, a multi-generational family-owned store, was a crucial part of the Blue Zones Project, particularly in encouraging healthier dietary choices for residents. The store strategically redesigned its merchandise layout and increased water display by 57 percent, while decreasing sugary drinks by 52 percent. Water sales surged by 105 percent, representing 34 percent of the store’s total beverage sales. Wynn’s Market also introduced a dedicated grab-and-go section with 25 healthy meal options for lunch or dinner, catering to the growing demand for nutritious choices.

Similarly, Summer Day Market and Café on Marco Island actively participated in engagement events to raise awareness and promote healthier food options. The owners, Michael and Angela Schulman, are passionate advocates for health, who strive to make healthy foods both attractive and available to their customers.

The focus on healthier eating is deeply intertwined with the overall well-being of individuals and communities. Improved access to fresh, nutritious food not only supports better physical health but also enhances mental well-being. By prioritizing partnerships, advocating for policy changes, and collaborating with businesses, the Blue Zones Project fostered an environment where healthier food choices are more accessible, leading to a positive impact on the region’s health and quality of life.

Fostering a Sense of Meaning

 “The Blue Zones Project is a wonderful way to provide community. It brings people together for health and well-being and a sense of belonging which fits right into what a church is and does.” – Reverend Alan Coe, Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ.

In the pursuit of promoting well-being and a sense of belonging, the Blue Zones Project has found a strong ally in faith-based communities throughout Southwest Florida. By incorporating Blue Zones Power 9 principles, these communities nurtured a deeper sense of purpose and connectedness among their members.

Reverend Alan Coe of Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ expressed admiration for the Blue Zones Project, celebrating its values that closely align with the mission of churches and highlighting its ability to unite people in a shared sense of communal health and well-being.

With a congregation of over 200 people, Celebration Beach Church in Naples played its part in fostering meaning and purpose by engaging in the Blue Zones Project Live Better, Longer presentation during which attendees took the personal pledge to improve their well-being. Pastor Gene Scott further emphasized the importance of purpose by delivering an annual sermon focused on Blue Zones Project principles.

Legacy Church also introduced the GPS Life Journey—an 8-week class developed by Pastor Nolen Rollins. The program was designed to help individuals identify their life purpose, aligning perfectly with the principles promoted by the Blue Zones Project. It was attended by 80 percent of the church’s members.

Leaders at Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ and St. Mark’s Episcopal Church also introduced Walking Moais. These Moais offer an opportunity for like-minded individuals to bond and support each other while engaging in physical activities.

The integration of Blue Zones principles in the activities of faith-based communities has nurtured a stronger sense of purpose, connection, and well-being among the residents. By engaging their congregations in meaningful activities, these communities have enriched the lives of their members and contributed to a more purpose-driven and fulfilled society in Southwest Florida.

By engaging their congregations in meaningful activities, these communities have enriched the lives of their members and contributed to a more purpose-driven and fulfilled society in Southwest Florida. Click To Tweet

Clean Air in Public Spaces

A focal point of the Blue Zones Project in Southwest Florida was the promotion of clean air and the reduction of smoking in public spaces across the region. In collaboration with local governments, health organizations, and community partners, the Blue Zones Project Southwest Florida has successfully implemented policies and initiatives that have had a significant impact on air quality and public health.

One of the key initiatives undertaken as part of this mission was to partner with Collier County and Tobacco Free Collier to introduce suggestive non-smoking signage within the Collier County Parks System. This partnership resulted in the design, purchase, and installation of signage in ball fields, parks, and beach access points, encouraging park-goers to refrain from smoking. While municipalities in Florida are prohibited from outrightly banning smoking in parks due to preemption laws, this approach of asking residents to voluntarily refrain from smoking proved effective and was well received.

Similarly, Tobacco Free Lee and the Department of Health collaborated with the Blue Zones Project to create signage for Bonita Springs Parks and Recreation, as well as window clings for area businesses, including restaurants and worksites, discouraging tobacco use on their premises. These efforts were aimed at promoting clean air in public spaces and reducing exposure to secondhand smoke.

The impact of these community partnerships has been remarkable. Since 2017, cigarette butt litter has seen a significant reduction of 40 percent in Southwest Florida’s parks and beaches, including Collier County Parks. Compliance with the no-smoking policy has increased, leading to a noticeable improvement in air quality and a healthier environment for all visitors.

Since 2017, cigarette butt litter has seen a significant reduction of 40 percent in Southwest Florida's parks and beaches. Click To Tweet

Thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Blue Zones Project Southwest Florida and its partners, the prevalence of tobacco use and vaping in the region has dropped from 8.8 percent to an all-time low of 3.6 percent. This reduction is in stark contrast to the statewide and national averages of 18.6 percent, demonstrating the positive impact of these initiatives on public health.

...tobacco use and vaping in the region has dropped from 8.8 percent to an all-time low of 3.6 percent. Click To Tweet

The success of these efforts has also led to a broader policy change. Following the implementation of suggestive signage in Collier and Lee Counties, Florida House Bill 105 was passed, allowing municipalities in the state to ban smoking in parks and beaches. This legislative change further reinforces the region’s commitment to clean air and healthier public spaces.

Moving forward, the efforts to promote clean air and reduce tobacco use will continue. Blue Zones Project Southwest Florida, in collaboration with Tobacco Free Lee and Tobacco Free Collier, will continue to prioritize education about the dangers of tobacco use and vaping in K-12 public schools. The aim here is to empower the younger generation to make informed choices about their health and well-being.

The collaborative efforts of Blue Zones Project Southwest Florida and its partners have brought about significant strides in promoting clean air and reducing smoking in public spaces. Through innovative approaches, community engagement, and policy advocacy, the project has created healthier environments and improved the well-being of residents and visitors alike.

Health Promotion Through the Workplace

“Over 50 percent of our employees participated in Moais. One of the changes that we have implemented in our Blue Zones journey is the transformation we have made in our cafés. We have increased veggie sales by almost 100 percent. We have increased our water sales due to removing added sugar beverages.”- Heather Imsdahl, NCH Wellness Director.

Given that many people spend a sizeable portion of their lives in the workplace, the workplace must be key for encouraging a healthy lifestyle. Blue Zones Project Southwest Florida also focuses on the workplace as a key site for health promotion. In Southwest Florida, organizations like JW Marriott Marco Island and the NCH Healthcare System led the way in fostering a culture of well-being among their employees and customers alike. A key part of this approach was making Blue Zones-inspired workplace changes, and thus becoming a Blue Zones Project Approved™ worksite.

Frank Mioli, the Director of Human Resources at JW Marriott Marco Island, shared his perspective on the importance of caring for associates first, as they, in turn, take care of the guests, aligning with the project’s principles. He said, “The value of becoming a Blue Zones Project Approved worksite to our associates and our guests is to help them live a healthy lifestyle. What Blue Zones Project stands for resonates with us.”

To attain the esteemed status of a Certified Blue Zones Worksite, the NCH Healthcare System implemented a series of strategic steps. The hospital cafeterias underwent systemic and environmental changes, eliminating oil-fried foods and offering daily blue zones-inspired, plant-based meal options. They also adopted a no-tobacco policy, requiring all current and newly hired employees to be non-smokers.

The impact of the Blue Zones Project Southwest Florida has also been evident in the Naples-Marco Island-Immokalee MSA community’s well-being. The community has consistently earned the highest well-being ranking in the country for four consecutive years. The collaborative efforts of NCH employees and the community at large played a pivotal role in achieving this status.

The Naples-Marco Island-Immokalee community has consistently earned the highest well-being ranking in the country for four consecutive years. Click To Tweet

The NCH hospital campuses underwent substantive changes, including introducing healthier food options in their cafeterias and promoting employee engagement through walking and potluck Moais. The elimination of sugar-sweetened beverages from the campuses also showed the commitment to a healthier workplace.

The dedication of leaders like Renee Thigpen, Lisa Brown, and Heather Imsdahl continues to inspire a proactive wellness approach at NCH Healthcare System. Their efforts have set an example for the future of healthcare, empowering employees to prioritize their well-being and embrace healthier lifestyles.

The success stories at JW Marriott Marco Island and NCH Healthcare System exemplify the transformative power of community-driven initiatives in creating healthier and thriving workplaces, which positively impact the lives of employees and guests. As Blue Zones Project Southwest Florida continues to drive change in workplaces, it will undoubtedly leave a legacy of improved well-being.

Changing Menus and Grocery Aisles

To make the healthy choice the easy choice, crucial changes across several sectors of society are necessary. It is important that the places where we buy our food, whether in our neighborhoods, at work, or at play, enable us to eat nutritious and affordable food.

“Food policy councils, more than ever, have a key role to play in connecting the different stakeholders in the food system to create the fairest, most productive food system. The American Public Health Association (APHA) awarded the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council (SWFRPC) a Healthiest Cities and Counties Challenge (HCCC) grant to initiate the Collier County Food Policy on July 1st, 2020. Through this partnership, our team, including Blue Zones Project Southwest Florida, continues to work towards policies and programs aimed at improving food security through collaboration and evidence-based strategies.” – Asmaa Odeh, SWFL Food Policy Council Coordinator.

Private-public partnerships with food system players are also key in improving access to healthy food. Ross Edlund, the owner of Skillets, a restaurant chain in Southwest Florida, recognized the urgent need to combat obesity and chronic illnesses caused by poor dietary choices. He emphasized that many chronic illnesses and premature deaths are a direct result of what people eat. To address healthy eating, Skillets is committed to providing nutritious and healthier dining choices on its menu, giving its customers the chance to make healthier food choices.

“Blue Zones Project is representative of a nationwide project to improve the eating habits of Americans, which is desperately needed due to an epidemic of obesity caused by making the wrong food choices. Since we now realize that many chronic illnesses and premature deaths are a direct result of what we eat, Skillets want our customers to know that nutritious, healthy dining choices can be found on our menu.” – Ross Edlund, Owner, Skillets

Mark Lemke, the Health Department Administrator in Immokalee, emphasized the strength of the Blue Zones Project in their community. The Project’s message of healthy living resonates across all settings, from homes and schools to workplaces and restaurants. The consistency of the message ensures that individuals receive the same encouragement to adopt healthier lifestyles wherever they go.

Food policy councils play a crucial role in creating a fair and productive food system by connecting various stakeholders in the food industry. The American Public Health Association (APHA) recognized the significance of these councils and awarded the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council (SWFRPC) a Healthiest Cities and Counties Challenge (HCCC) grant to initiate the Collier County Food Policy. Through this partnership, the team, including the Blue Zones Project Southwest Florida, continues to work on policies and programs aimed at improving food security through collaboration and evidence-based strategies. Asmaa Odeh, the SWFL Food Policy Council Coordinator, is leading the efforts to address food insecurity and promote healthier food choices in the region.

Naples Flatbread in Estero has always been a pioneer in offering healthier options to its customers. Partnering with the Blue Zones Project to implement retail food best practices, it became the first eatery in Estero to achieve the Blue Zones Project Approved Restaurant designation. To achieve this milestone, the restaurant took various steps, such as adding four new blue zones-inspired dishes to the menu and highlighting them with a blue checkmark. They also priced entrees with plant-based proteins lower than meat-based ones, making healthier choices more accessible and attractive. Additionally, they allowed customers to request any entree to be grilled, baked, or broiled rather than fried and began serving salad dressings and all condiments on the side. These changes not only encourage healthier food choices but also increased customer satisfaction.

Ralph and Palma Desiano, the owners of Naples Flatbread, firmly believe that incremental changes can lead to significant improvements in health and well-being over time. They are committed to continuing their journey towards offering even healthier choices to their customers, inspiring others to follow suit.

“Everybody that comes in feels more welcomed, more invited. We put all the produce up front so that they could get to it better. Just switching it from the back to the front has doubled sales in produce. Making these changes has impacted customers’ buying decisions in a very positive way. Knowing the effect that a proper diet has had on my life, I am happy to include Fresh Access Bucks to help customers further experience the benefits of healthier eating”- Franck LeGrand Jr., Owner, and Manager, LeGrand Caribbean Market

LeGrand Caribbean Market, a grocery store serving a diverse community in Immokalee, embarked on a transformative journey inspired by its owner, Franck LeGrand Jr. After a warning from his doctor and a cue from his brother-in-law, Franck adopted a plant-slant diet to lose 100 pounds and improve his health. This personal transformation motivated Franck to partner with the Blue Zones Project Southwest Florida on a corner store pilot program to offer healthier options to his customers, even on a budget. After facing significant damage from Hurricane Irma, Blue Zones Project Southwest Florida facilitated the connection between Franck and the Wynn family (of Wynn’s Market) to brainstorm rebuilding and success strategies. LeGrand Caribbean Market reopened in January 2018 with a host of new improvements, including a new roof, registers, lighting, and coolers.

[Related: After Losing 100+ Pounds, Grocery Store Owner Promotes Healthier Options]

As part of the initiative to promote healthier choices, LeGrand Caribbean Market expanded the variety of the produce they stocked and relocated the produce display to the front of the store, encouraging customers to make healthier choices right from the entrance. Additional coolers were purchased to stock healthy options and prominently feature them. With the help of Blue Zones Project Market Makeover dollars, they installed 22 feet of dry produce storage, providing more space for fresh produce. The market also installed a bike rack outside to encourage natural and healthy movement among customers.

During this process, Franck worked with UF/IFAS Extension and the Blue Zones Project Southwest Florida to become an authorized EBT (SNAP) and WIC retail food store. The Blue Zones Project introduced the market to FEEDING FLORIDA for consideration as a pilot market for the Fresh Access Bucks (FAB) program. FAB offers matching or discounted funds to SNAP cardholders for purchasing Florida-grown produce. In 2019, 55 percent of LeGrand’s sales were made with SNAP dollars, and 25 percent of those purchases were for fresh produce, demonstrating how SNAP and FAB facilitated access to fresh, locally sourced produce for Immokalee residents.

The impact of the Blue Zones Project in changing menus and the contents of grocery aisles goes beyond promoting healthier food choices. It represents a powerful movement that connects communities, inspires personal transformations, and fosters a culture of well-being. As the project continues its journey in Southwest Florida, it leaves a legacy of improved health, well-being, and community vitality.

“With large chains coming to dominance, there weren’t a lot of independent grocers left, and we knew new needed to change if we wanted to be around another 60 years. We changed our décor and concentrated on healthier food items and specialty brands” – Tim Wynn, President, Wynn’s Market

Transforming Schools for Healthy Outcomes

Students at Bonita Springs Charter School honor those lessons learned from the Power 9 principles by dressing up as healthy centenarians.

In the quest to create healthier and more vibrant communities, the Blue Zones Project extended its reach to schools. Through innovative approaches and strategic partnerships, schools are embracing the Blue Zones principles to foster healthy practices among students and staff alike.

At the forefront of this movement are Lake Park Elementary School and Village Oaks Elementary School, where Wellness Champion JoAnn Vukobratovitch leads the charge. She emphasized the importance of students becoming advocates for their well-being, making connections between the Blue Zones principles and their everyday lives. “Our goal with Blue Zones Project is to have students become their own advocates and apply this to the real-world connections that they go home to or travel to, and come back happier, healthier students at Lake Park,” said Vukobratovitch.

Barron Collier High School staff and students

Barron Collier High School (BCHS) has also emerged as a shining example of a school community deeply committed to encouraging healthy living, a sense of purpose, and well-being. Inspired by BCHS Principal Dr. Sean Kinsley and French teacher Dr. Juniace Etienne who previously volunteered as a Blue Zones Project Purpose Workshop facilitator, the school integrated various Blue Zones Project activities into its campus life.

To foster a culture of well-being, BCHS embarked on a journey that prioritized physical activity, mental and emotional health, and access to fresh produce. One of the key actions taken by the school was integrating physical activity into daily lesson plans outside of physical education classes. This approach not only helped students stay focused and energized but also encouraged teachers to find creative ways to promote movement in the classroom.

Recognizing the importance of mental and emotional well-being, BCHS actively participated in the CCPS Mental and Emotional Health Education Modules. Over six weeks, students and teachers engaged in expert-led sessions focused on mindfulness, relaxation strategies, and other topics related to mental and emotional health. This initiative facilitated open communication between students and school counselors, nurturing a supportive environment for emotional growth.

In a bid to cultivate a deeper connection with nature and emphasize the importance of fresh, wholesome food, BCHS established a school garden, as well as an indoor herb and vegetable garden. Through a grant won by the biology staff, students learned the art of gardening, fostering an appreciation for fresh produce and imbibing the value of healthy eating.

BCHS also enthusiastically participated in Blue Zones Project’s National Walking Day activities. The school went beyond just participating in physical activities, to organizing fundraising events for local causes at which they provided healthy breakfasts for all participants. These activities reflected the presence of the Power 9 principles in the school’s culture.

The Power 9 principles, derived from the lifestyles of the world’s longest-lived people, form the bedrock of Blue Zones Project initiatives. By offering student and staff activities that align with these principles, such as walking clubs, healthy food options in the cafeteria, and Purpose Workshops, BCHS created a comprehensive approach to well-being.

Through these concerted efforts, nearly 1,700 BCHS students now experience a school environment that prioritizes mental, physical, and social well-being. The commitment of BCHS leadership, staff, and students to the Blue Zones Project has created a positive impact on the overall health and happiness of the school community.

The transformation of schools into havens of well-being reflects the broader vision of the Blue Zones Project to enhance the health and longevity of entire communities. By fostering healthier lifestyles among students and educators, these schools are sowing the seeds of a healthier and happier future for generations to come.

Through these concerted efforts, nearly 1,700 BCHS students now experience a school environment that prioritizes mental, physical, and social well-being. Click To Tweet

 

A Journey of Lasting Change and Continuous Progress

“I look forward to continuing the efforts of the NCH Wellness Team and Blue Zones Project Southwest Florida in the coming years. I believe that we can make our community an even healthier place to live, work, and play,” – Paul Hiltz, CEO of NCH Healthcare System.

In a nation grappling with health challenges, the Blue Zones Project stands out as a beacon of hope and progress. It represents a nationwide effort to, among other things, improve the eating habits of Americans, addressing the epidemic of obesity caused by poor food choices. The profound realization that many chronic illnesses and premature deaths stem from dietary habits has driven organizations like Skillets to act, offering nutritious and healthy dining choices on their menus.

The impact of the Blue Zones Project is also not confined to a single location. Blue Zones Project Southwest Florida’s success was made possible by the collaboration of various stakeholders, with Food Policy Councils playing a pivotal role in fostering the fairest and most productive food system. The American Public Health Association recognized the significance of this endeavor, awarding the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council (SWFRPC) a Healthiest Cities and Counties Challenge (HCCC) grant to initiate the Collier County food policy. Asmaa Odeh, the SWFL Food Policy Council Coordinator, highlighted the ongoing commitment of the team, including the Blue Zones Project of Southwest Florida, towards improving food security through evidence-based strategies and collaboration.

One of the most profound transformations is reflected in the overall well-being of the community. More residents now report “thriving” in their life evaluations, and a higher percentage claim to like what they do every day. This shift towards positivity and well-being is the result of incremental steps, made possible by the collaborative efforts of partners, residents, and organizations committed to the Blue Zones Project.

How Blue Zones Project Southwest Florida is Creating Community-Wide Well-Being Through Collective Impact Click To Tweet

The case study of the NCH Healthcare System exemplifies the Blue Zones Project’s impact on workplace well-being. By addressing the health and well-being needs of its employees and their spouses, the NCH has created a workplace culture that inspires better health and performance. Notably, the Blue Zones Well-Being 5 survey demonstrates consistent improvements across all categories between 2015 and 2018, showing the efficacy of the initiatives. Changes in the food environment resulted in a significant increase in healthy café choices, leading to improvements in key health data, and a reduction in healthcare expenses by a staggering 54 percent.

The success story of the NCH is not an isolated incident but resonates with other workplaces and communities in Southwest Florida. The positive changes in eating choices and higher employee retention rates demonstrate Blue Zones Project’s potential for creating a healthier and more vibrant community. Through concerted efforts and investment in well-being, organizations like the NCH have reaped rewards in terms of reduced healthcare costs and a more engaged and productive workforce.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to share my love for cooking and eating healthy with the Blue Zones Project community. My hope is that my passion is passed on to those who shared in the experience at the cooking demonstrations and will impact the way people eat and enjoy healthy food!” – Juliana Saitta Grazioso, Cooking Demonstration Volunteer.

HOAs have also made remarkable strides in fostering well-being within their communities. Initiatives such as plant-based cooking demonstrations, health seminars, and well-being events have inspired nearly 800 Bonita Bay Community Association residents to pledge to live healthier. At Foxfire Country Club, a unique synergistic approach to well-being programming planning has created a sustainable model of well-being that permeates the entire community. These success stories highlight Blue Zones Project’s ability to create a holistic impact that transcends individual efforts.

Furthermore, the Blue Zones Project has been a catalyst for transformative change in community design. Enhancements in transportation, connectivity, and walkability of the communities have encouraged physical activity and fostered a sense of belonging. The installation of Eco Counters in Immokalee and the recognition of the City of Naples as a Bike Friendly Community Silver Medalist exemplify the enduring influence of these improvements.

The Blue Zones Project has also contributed significantly to addressing one of the most critical public health challenges by reducing tobacco and vaping rates in Southwest Florida. With the prevalence of tobacco use and vaping dropping to an all-time low of 3.6 percent, compared to the state and national average of 18.6 percent, Blue Zones Project has effectively safeguarded the health and well-being of the community.

Blue Zones Project Approved schools in Southwest Florida have been instrumental in promoting well-being among students. From implementing school gardens and Smarter Lunchroom best practices to encouraging physical activity, these schools have fostered a healthy environment where students thrive. The increased daily attendance at Tommie Barfield Elementary School and the integration of well-being practices at Lake Park Elementary School exemplify the project’s positive influence on young minds.

Measuring the impact of these initiatives, the Sharecare Community Well-Being Index reveals encouraging statistics. Physical activity has increased by 20.1 percent since 2015, exemplifying the positive influence of Blue Zones Project on people’s exercise habits. Additionally, health risks like high blood pressure and high cholesterol have decreased by 57.9 percent and 73.1 percent respectively, indicating that healthier lifestyles have been adopted by the community.

Beyond the individual and community levels, the Blue Zones Project’s impact extends to the bottom line. The NCH Healthcare System’s case study is a testament to the positive correlation between well-being and economic outcomes. By investing in employee well-being, NCH achieved a reduction in workdays lost to injuries, lower health insurance premiums, and increased participation in wellness programs. The numbers speak for themselves, with significant cost savings, improved employee retention, and increased well-being scores.

“Over 50 percent of our employees participated in Moais. One of the changes that we have implemented in our Blue Zones journey is the transformation we have made in our cafes. We have increased veggie sales almost 100 percent. We have increased our water sales due to removing added sugar beverages. We have also offered Purpose Workshops and they create a lot of inspiration for our employees to volunteer in the community.” – Heather Imsdahl – NCH Wellness Director, NCH Healthcare System.

The return on investment for the Blue Zones Project is a testament to its effectiveness as a collective impact initiative. The seven-year estimated healthcare and workforce productivity savings for Southwest Florida amount to an impressive $190.2 million. However, the true value lies not just in the financial gains but in the enriched lives of citizens, families, and organizations. The continuous progress made by Blue Zones Project has enriched Southwest Florida as a “choice community,” where people and businesses gravitate, drawn by the promise of a healthier and more fulfilling life.

Blue Zones Project Southwest Florida exemplifies the power of collective action, optimism, and continuous progress. From encouraging individual well-being to fostering vibrant and resilient communities, the project has paved the way for a healthier and happier future. The key data and success stories from NCH Healthcare System, Southwest Florida schools, HOAs, and worksites exemplify the potential for nationwide transformation through this visionary initiative. As local partners and stakeholders continue to work together, the Blue Zones Project’s influence and impact are poised to grow, leaving a lasting positive legacy in the community.


Ebele Mogo, DrPH has a wealth of experience in global health including work with policymakers, venture-funded start-ups, international organizations, and grassroots organizations. She has worked in a wide range of contexts including Canada, Nigeria, Cameroon, Kenya, South Africa, the United States, England, Scotland, and Japan. She is well-versed in the thematic areas of urban health, behavior change, young people’s health, technology-enabled health promotion, non-communicable disease prevention, and planetary health.

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