OSU Extension leads effort to bring Blue Zones Project to The Dalles

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Like many communities across the United States, The Dalles has struggled with the health and well-being of its residents. By many measurements, access to nutritious food, good health care and fitness opportunities fell short in Wasco County’s largest city.

In 2016, Lauren Kraemer sought to change that. After meeting a representative of the Blue Zones Project at a conference, Kraemer went to work. The Blue Zones Project brings various sectors – residents, community, business and civic leaders – together in a commitment to bolster healthy habits. Residents volunteer for initiatives such as encouraging healthy food in schools, grocery stores, workplaces and restaurants.

The Blue Zones Project is inspired by Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow and New York Times best-selling author who identified five regions of the world – Blue Zones – with the highest concentration of people living 100 years or older.

In Buettner’s search for areas of health and longevity, he found residents of Blue Zones sites practice nine healthy lifestyle habits, including a plant-based diet, a sense of purpose, moving as part of daily life and socializing. Other behaviors are attending faith-based services, eating only until stomachs are 80 percent full, moderate wine consumption, developing strategies for less stress, and putting family first.

Kraemer, an assistant professor of practice in Oregon State University Extension Service’s Family and Community Health program, guided the process to bring Blue Zones to The Dalles, from writing and submitting the application, to securing funds for the project from dozens of different organizations and donors. She made dozens of presentations to various groups and committees across the region to inform them about Blue Zones.

As the result of Kraemer’s efforts and others, The Dalles became one of four Oregon regions selected as Blue Zones Project Demonstration Communities. Kraemer served on three different Blue Zones committees over the past three-plus years, including the project Steering Committee, the Fundraising and Sustainability Committee, and the Food and Policy Committee.

As a result, The Dalles is on the road to optimal health and well-being. A few early successes included:

  • A 20% increase over two years in residents feeling “proud of their community.”
  • Development of safer, traffic calming pickup/drop-off infrastructure at local elementary schools through collaboration by the City of The Dalles and the North Wasco County School District.
  • Over 250 people participated in “Purpose Workshops.”
  • More than 150 people took part in healthy cooking demonstrations.
  • Over 350 students and volunteers came together for Walk To School Wednesdays.
  • More than 300 people attended community clean-ups.
  • Over 1,500 people have taken a personal pledge to live healthier, longer lives.

The next steps include expanding health and well-being programming regionally through the Healthy Gorge Initiative.

“I’m convinced that the holistic framework of health that Blue Zones uses is the best way to improve the health and well-being of a community,” Kraemer said. “In my work with the SNAP-Ed Program, Food Hero, and Extension – much of our work encourages more physical activity and eating healthy foods. But without a sense of purpose or belonging and strong connections to family and friends, no amount of physical health can make us truly happy and well.”

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