Blue Zones Project coming to Jacksonville to reduce food deserts, extend lifespans

Did you know you spend 90% of your life within five miles of your home?

But our built environment, which includes not only buildings but roads, sidewalks, and public spaces, also plays an important role in physical health. Researchers call cities that promote sedentary lifestyles and poor diet obesogenic.

Nearly 40% of Americans are considered obese. Rates of obesity for children have increased in recent decades, putting more people at increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. One in 5 deaths of those aged 40 to 85 are now attributed to obesity, and one recent study projects that by 2030, nearly half of all U.S. adults will be obese.

There’s a growing health initiative called The Blue Zones Project that is working to improve neighborhoods in Jacksonville so people in those communities can lead longer and healthier lives.

According to its website, the Blue Zones Project is rooted in years of international anthropological research and data-driven results. Participating communities benefit from better health, significant medical cost savings, productivity improvements, increased economic vitality, and lowered obesity and smoking rates.

Blue Zones Projects are around in more than 70 communities across the country. In five years, those communities have seen double-digit drops in obesity and smoking rates among other positive health outcomes.

Baptist Health funded the assessment which pointed to Jacksonville as a good candidate.

Michael Mayo, President and CEO of Baptist Health says there is a lot of disparity in overall health and wellness across different areas of Duval County. “The project has targeted the Northside and the Eastside and the Westside areas,” Mayo explained.

Blue Zones Project in Jacksonville is supported by a strong coalition of public and private partners: Baptist Health, Brooks Rehabilitation, the City of Jacksonville, Florida Blue, Jacksonville Jaguars, Jessie Ball duPont Fund, Mayo Clinic in Florida, UF Health Jacksonville, and United Way of Northeast Florida.

The project will look at things like how to encourage physical activity through better policies.

“Things that have to do with bike lanes, parks,” Mayo added. It’ll also provide access to healthier food. “Approach different grocers and help with food deserts.”

“For me, this is personal,” said Whitney Meyer, who grew up on the Northside. She represents the Jacksonville Jaguars as Senior Vice President and Chief Community Impact Officer, but she also knows the struggles first-hand.

“I understand the differences, personally, when you live in one zip code versus another zip code,” she pointed out.

LiftJax, an initiative that brings together community and business leaders to try and end poverty in Jacksonville, found that your zip code matters more than your genetic code.

For instance, the life expectancy of someone living in Ortega is 80 years old. Meanwhile, the life expectancy of someone living in Durkeeville is 67 years old. That’s a 13-year difference. “It absolutely staggers me that your zip code will determine your life expectancy,” said Darnell Smith, Market President, Florida Blue Health’s North Florida Region.

“I always worry about my family, especially in these specific areas,” Meyer explained.

In 9 months, the Blue Zones Project will lay out a game plan for how to tackle these issues in five years. But in the meantime, it’ll be looking for volunteers and staff to help.

“Get involved now,” Meyer suggested to the community.

“This is not just about you,” Meyer emphasized. “It’s about your community.”

Darnell Smith, Market President for Florida Blue said: “We are keenly aware that a person’s zip code helps define their health outcomes. GuideWell/Florida Blue is excited about the possibilities of working with Blue Zones, Baptist Health, and other community partners to help improve the health outcomes of many of our neighbors, especially in the underserved neighborhoods. This partnership will allow a critical mass of health-focused partners to operate with a shared vision toward improving health outcomes.”

To get involved, you can check out the Blue Zones Project website here.

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