From The Star Telegram
FORT WORTH, TEXAS--
BY MARICE RICHTER
When Carrie Jackson first learned about the Blue Zones Project, the Timberview Middle School principal was the first to raise her hand to get involved in this sweeping health and wellness program.
“I thought it was a great fit for our campus because we focus on helping our kids to become better people and we love to do things that help to make our community better,” says Jackson, who is a dedicated advocate for fitness and wellness.
DAN BUETTNER WROTE “THE BLUE ZONES: LESSONS FOR LIVING LONGER FROM THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE LIVED LONGEST.”
Jackson and other Keller ISD principals were invited to join Fort Worth’s Blue Zones Projects initiative nearly a year ago. Other principals got on board, but Jackson wasted no time in enthusiastically embracing the program.
As a result, Timberview became the first middle school to be officially approved as a Blue Zones school as well as the first school in the Keller ISD to earn the distinction. Since Fort Worth is the only city in Texas participating in the project, Timberview is the only middle school in the state designated as a Blue Zones campus.
At the beginning of the 2015-16 school year, Keller Superintendent Dr. Randy Reid and Cindy Parsons, the district’s director of health services, introduced the project to involve more schools in Fort Worth’s initiative to become one of the country’s healthiest cities.
Because many of the Keller schools are located in Fort Worth, the district was a logical prospect for this comprehensive project that aims to lower obesity rates, reduce smoking and chronic disease and create a healthier place for residents to live, work and play.
ANYTHING THAT FOCUSES ON HEALTH AND WELLNESS IS A GOOD THING
Reid says the district embraced the Blue Zones because of the many benefits and valuable lessons it teaches students.
“We feel that anything that focuses on health and wellness is a good thing,” Reid says. “The more we cultivate healthy lifestyle habits with kids, the more it will benefit us as a society.”
Fort Worth is a demonstration site and the largest in the United States so far. Communities in eight states have signed on to the Blue Zones Project to improve the overall well-being of their cities and regions.
In 2013, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, an avid cyclist and proponent of healthy living, teamed with Texas Health Resources and the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce to bring the Blue Zones Project to Fort Worth.
The Blue Zones Project is based on research by National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner, who discovered that there are five regions in the world that he termed “Blue Zones,” where residents live longer, healthier, happier lives than those in other areas. He wrote a best-selling book, “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who Have Lived Longest,” and founded the Blue Zones Project.
The project promotes healthy living activities such as cooking classes, volunteering and social connectivity through “moais,” groups of five to eight people who meet over 10 weeks to walk, share potluck dinners and get to know each other.
The Blue Zones Project was officially launched in Fort Worth in February 2015 with a goal of becoming Blue Zones-certified by 2018, meaning the community is committed to lasting changes such as leaving the salt shaker off the dining table, eating more fruits and vegetables and moving around more.
“Fort Worth is the largest city nationwide to participate in the Blue Zones Project,” says Jan Titsworth, executive director of Blue Zones Project-Fort Worth. “Fort Worth has committed to creating a culture of healthy living and wellness.”
Fort Worth’s Blue Zones plan for comprehensive community-wide improvement was created with the input of 100 community volunteers and approved by an 11-member steering committee of civic leaders.
WE SEE THIS AS A WIN-WIN
Achieving Blue Zones certification requires involvement of individuals, employers, schools, grocery stores and restaurants. All must meet ambitious participation guidelines to become approved. A minimum of 25 percent of the city’s restaurants, schools and grocery stores must be approved for Fort Worth to become certified.
The project also must recruit 110,000 people age 15 and up and 85,000 employees to achieve its certification goal.
While the project has 46 Fort Worth employers and 16,000 residents signed up, only three schools have achieved approved status so far, including Timberview. The two others are Fort Worth ISD elementary campuses.
Schools in the Northwest ISD are welcome to participate as well as those in the Keller and Fort Worth districts.
Oliva Italian Eatery in the Keller-Fort Worth area is among 25 restaurants that have become Blue Zone-approved. According to Cynthia Loeb, owner of Oliva, the restaurant added a more healthy choice items to their menu which are highlighted to indicate Blue Zones-friendly selections, and they increased the number of vegetarian salads and pasta dishes as well as adding feta cheese, a “longevity superfood,” to menu items. Diners can ask for half of their dish to be wrapped in the kitchen, with the remaining portion of their entrée served on a smaller plate. “We are so excited to be a part of this movement that inspires people to live longer, healthier lives,” Loeb says. “Living in a healthy community benefits everyone socially and economically. We are proud to be involved with an organization that promotes fitness, faith and family. It is about the big picture of living in a great community for generations to come.”
The concept of the Blue Zones Project as well as the innovative activities and the program’s intersection with the Keller ISD’s own health and wellness initiatives are what made it attractive to district officials.
“We see this as a win-win,” says Parsons, the district health director. “If our children are healthy and sick less often, they will do better in school. We want them in school every day.”
Keller ISD’s commitment to health and wellness includes a cutting-edge health clinic for faculty and staff so employees can be conveniently treated for minor illnesses and ailments. Through its partnership with Marathon Health, the on-site clinic also offers health assessments and coaching and disease management.
The services have reduced employee absenteeism, which has kept teachers in the classroom and learning uninterrupted more often, officials say. In addition, the district wellness programs offer tips, strategies and activities to help employees lose weight, reduce stress and become healthier.
Among the most popular strategies has been a 12-week program based on NBC-TV’s “The Biggest Loser” that offers incentives to employees for weight loss.
“It has been very popular and we have had outstanding turnout,” says Will Haddad, district wellness coordinator.
The district’s wellness initiatives also extend to students and the communities through activities such as the district’s annual School Walk for Diabetes at the Keller ISD Athletic Complex. The 2016 walk drew about 1,000 participants and raised about $80,000 for the American Diabetes Association, Parsons said.
Keller district officials say participation in the Blue Zones Projects will boost student fitness and wellness involvement beyond its own programs. Particularly intriguing is the Blue Zones’ Walking School Bus program that encourages children to walk to school under the supervision of two or more adults.
Timberview’s first Walking School Bus event in April was a huge success, Jackson says. More walking to school events will take place in the 2016-17 school year as part of the Blue Zones guidelines.
“The Walking School Bus was our most heavily attended activity, and I think a lot of that was due to the unique nature of the event and also lots and lots of promotion from our student announcements team and our Health and Wellness Council,” Jackson says. “Everyone enjoyed the big celebration in the courtyard to start the school day!”
Besides the walk-to-school, Timberview has created other wellness strategies such as free access to a fruit and vegetable bar, establishment of a school fruit and vegetable community garden, free weekly fitness classes for the school community and the introduction of movement and “brain breaks” in classrooms.
New policies planned for the 2016-17 school year include eliminating the sale of non-nutritious food for fund-raising and eliminating the practice of providing food for rewards.
Jackson says parents and the PTA have also been highly supportive and contributed to the initiatives that led to Timberview becoming a Blue Zones approved school.
“The main benefit of the Blue Zones Project for our school is that it helps promote overall well-being for everyone,” Jackson says. “It has been fun to see our students get involved. Our kids have become accustomed to integrating natural movement with celebrations and activities, and I believe they are making lots of positive associations with fitness.”
Marice Richter is a freelance writer from Grapevine.