Volunteers lead youth around the Sherwood Hall grounds with bus cutouts at the Blue Zones Project launch in Salinas, demonstrating how “walking school buses” can get groups of students safely to school. (Contributed Photo)

SALINAS VALLEY — South Monterey County is being examined as a possible area for the Blue Zones Project (BZP), with a Wine at Five social hour and keynote presentation planned for Feb. 26, followed by a community presentation on Feb. 27 at the Salinas Valley Fairgrounds in King City.

Blue Zones — first written about by Dan Buettner in National Geographic in 2005 — are regions of the world where people have longer lifespans than average, based on demographic work performed by Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain. The Blue Zones Project works toward community well-being to unite a region’s stakeholders into making healthier choices easier for everyone.

Sites are first examined to see if they’re ready for being a part of the Blue Zones Project through analysis of region data and an assessment of community input. If an area is able to be part of the project, it moves toward preparing for inclusion into the Blue Zones certified program. If an area doesn’t meet the metrics, it isn’t included.

“Before Blue Zones takes on a community, they want to know they can take the next step,” said Karina Rusk of the BZP communications and public relations.

The project isn’t marketed as a quick fix for healthy living, as it goes further than the general advice of eat less and exercise more. It is aimed at making communities similar to the original Blue Zones, where there are numerous centenarians and many elderly not laying sick in beds, but rather out and about doing activities like chopping wood or taking walks.

There has been one prior community in the county examined by BZP. Salinas claimed its health care system was good, and BZP came to assess it.

“We got input and feedback and took a tour of the downtown to see what’s the structure and what’s in place. What is Blue Zone-like and what can we modify to make it work?” Rusk said.

Now that Salinas is one year into its preparations and changes, BZP is looking at other areas within the region, including South Monterey County and the Monterey Peninsula.

“We’re going to be gaging what is the pulse of the community,” Rusk said. “How can we inspire them and connect with them? And, hopefully, go on this journey with them.”

As far as what factors can change a community for the better, it is a collection of changes, sometimes small, that adds up when put together.

“You cannot prescribe something to an individual that will make them live longer and healthier,” Rusk said. “You have to change the environment around them.”

On an individual level, Rusk said, “It’s as simple as committing to replacing dinner plates with smaller plates, or scheduling a weekly walk with friends, having conversations with elders, adopting an animal or volunteering. When you get people to understand all these little actions that are achievable on an individual basis, they all add up to a healthier community.”

The analysis at BZP also examines what community changes can take place.

“I don’t have a walking trail within 10 miles of me that I can take my family to,” Rusk said as an example of something a community member could say. She added, “The park doesn’t have lights, so my family doesn’t feel safe there after dusk.”

Identifying roadblocks for healthier living is part of the process, whether it’s food, safety, fitness or other factors.

“These are problems and concerns that people in almost every community have,” Rusk said.

Next week’s programs will be in English and Spanish, as Rusk noted bilingual inclusion is essential for the area.

Rusk reminded that the presentation is not a guarantee BZP will include a particular area, but that it has to be found ready or near ready to be part of the project.

“It is kind of a screening process,” Rusk said. “Only one out of every 10 or 15 communities that approach Blue Zones are ready for it.”

One factor is community receptiveness, with less than anticipated response for the King City event noted by BZP already, which has time to change within the next week.

“People that are willing to take an hour out of their evening to learn more or provide feedback are so important,” Rusk said. She explained BZP wants to see the willingness for partnership from a community.

The Feb. 26 Wine at Five begins at 5 p.m., followed by a keynote presentation from national speaker Tony Buettner at 6 p.m. at the Salinas Valley Fairgrounds. The Feb. 27 Community Transformation Presentation begins at 9:30 a.m., also at the fairgrounds.

For more information, visit go.bluezonesproject.com/southcounty.

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Sean Roney is a freelance reporter for King City Rustler and Salinas Valley Tribune, a unified publication of Greenfield News, Soledad Bee and Gonzales Tribune. He covers general news for the Salinas Valley communities in South Monterey County.


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