Lessons from Dan Buettner’s Blue Zones Project
What does it take to make an entire city healthier and more open to a plant-based lifestyle?
Dan Buettner, an award-winning journalist, researcher, and a National Geographic fellow, knows exactly how to get it done. Thanks to his Blue Zones Project, communities across the United States from rural Minnesota to beach cities in California to a corporate hub in Texas are being transformed. Cities who commit to Blue Zones Project report savings in health care costs, longer lifespan, drop in obesity and smoking rates and many other improvements.
With our Corporate Initiatives Program kicking off in its first year, we got an opportunity to interview Dan about his perspective on being a change maker and making an impact on corporate and community levels.
Tell us about the work of Blue Zones Project with businesses and corporations?
Dan: Blue Zones Project works with entire communities. Our approach is comprehensive and community-wide and we believe if that if you want to make employees healthier, you have to make their city healthier.
One of the success stories of Blue Zones Project is the community of Albert Lea, MN that has seen a 38% increase in walking and biking and have lost a total of 8,000 pounds.
Blue Zones Project offers workplace certification project for companies, schools, grocery stores where businesses are coached in about 50 ways that an employer can optimize their environment. We encourage business to change policies and implement designs where people would be more likely to move more, eat more plant-based options, connect more, and know their sense of purpose. We coach employers in implementing these changes and if at least 70% of the recommendations get implemented, they get certified by us.
At companies’ cafeteria, we ask them to charge a bit more for hamburgers or meat entrees and use the extra funds to subsidize appealing and delicious plant-based offerings with fresh ingredients and a real chef preparing them so that they are really tasty.
We also convinced employers to offer green trays at the salad bar and red trays at the hamburger line. Bottom line: we don’t take people’s choice away, we try to make healthy choice easier, more salient, and easier to find.
What are some of the essential partnerships that make Blue Zones Project a success?
Dan: Our initiative is publicly supported and privately funded. We work with city governments and leaders and usually develop a partnership with an insurance company or a hospital system to fund the program in a particular community. For example, Albert Lea project received funds from Minnesota Department of Transportation, Minnesota State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP), Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, Mayo Clinic Health System, Walmart, and many other community organizations. We partner with organizations that clearly see the link between the purpose of our program and being able to bring down obesity, smoking and improve health and quality of life indicators in the entire community.
But this project only works if people actually commit to change. Through our program, we encourage people to take a pledge where they agree to do plant-based potlucks with other people, take purpose workshops and volunteer, implement a checklist we give them in order to optimize their home for a healthier lifestyle. We work with a city council to influence such things as restaurant menus with ample vegetable and fruit offerings, favor pedestrian over automobile method of transportation or favor a non-smoker over a smoker.
The change happens gradually, usually, after about 5 years you get enough ubiquity and penetration. Our main premise on which we operate our entire program is we don’t try to change people’s lives, we change their environment. We create an environment where it’s cheaper and more accessible and even cooler to eat plant-based entrees, to eat fewer calories, move more, socialize more, and know your sense of purpose.
What advice would you give to a vegan in a workplace who wants to make a difference in his or her organization?
We don’t take people’s choice away, we try to make healthy choice easier, more salient, and easier to find.”
Dan: Chief Financial Officer and HR department would be the best contact to start with. Financial leaders in companies care about the bottom line. It is quite logical to tie diabetes, cancer, and other conditions with how much it is costing a company in medical expenses and lost productivity. Steer the conversation towards the fact that policies encouraging plant-based eating are ultimately going to lower healthcare costs for any company. In this situation, it will be more productive to take a health approach rather than an animal rights approach.
Advocate for changes that can be easily and inexpensively implemented, at least at first. Fruits, water, healthy snacks…all these items are readily available and would not break a company budget. Work with a cafeteria to have a couple of plant-based entrees as part of a regular menu. Encourage a company to sponsor plant-based lunches to get people trying and realizing how delicious this food can be.
Earlier this year we launched our Vegan Leaders Corporate Initiatives Support Program, which is a 60month coaching program to promote plant-based choices in the corporations. What advice would you give to the participants of this program to make their mission most successful?
Dan: It is fantastic to hear about such an initiative. One advice I can give to the participants is to remember that discipline is hard. It can only take you so far. Don’t strive to change the behavior of people around you. Instead, work on changing their environment and you will see a big difference.
Another important aspect to remember is to strive to create friendships rather than just organizing a certain group. There is a concept of “moai”, which means “meeting for a common purpose” in Japanese. People belonging to a moai develop lifelong friendships fueled by a common purpose and a sense of connection and belonging.
See if you can make meaningful connections through this initiative and think beyond organizing a certain group. Can you give people an opportunity to get to know each other, to bond, to make memories over plant-based potlucks, holding each other accountable and working on a common purpose together?
Then, when the program is done, you will still have 2-3 friends with whom you shared fun getting together and going out to eat vegan Thai food and you can’t wait to do it again.
Have you gotten any pushback through this project or find it difficult for people to commit to the change?
We create an environment where it’s cheaper and more accessible and even cooler to eat plant-based entrees, to eat fewer calories, move more, socialize more, and know your sense of purpose.”
Dan: Blue Zones Project is only done in cities who want this program implemented. We don’t certify employers, schools, grocery stores, and other businesses unless they want it and are ready to commit. The key is to formulate benefits for an organization and get it to opt in.
What’s next for Dan Buettner, what’s the next project?
Dan: I am researching healthiest diets in the world and food that will sustain the world population in the next 50 years where we can live without chronic disease. Both internal and external impacts of our food choices are of great interest to me.
Best of luck with your program!