Thursday, July 23, 2009

Another sort of carrot for being healthier

An unusual social experiment is underway in Albert Lea, Minn., a small city apparently chosen because it’s so typical of the Midwest. Such big names as AARP and United Health Foundation joined forces in January to launch the Blue Zone Vitality Project, a pilot program aiming to add 10,000 years to the lives of Albert Lea residents. The effort is also intended to challenge the ways restaurants serve their communities, with 30 local eateries now taking part in the experiment.

The program is comprehensive, extending to exercise, social interactions, eating habits, even non-tangibles like residents’ self-interest and sense of purpose. Already, the town has added community gardens, walking trails, “walking school buses” (a group-walk to school, led and shepherded by grownups), and “walking moais,” a program that encourages residents to walk in groups and get to know their neighbors.

Indeed, dear readers, I apologize for not noticing such a sweeping program until it’s in the seventh of its 10 chartered months.

The most recent development is what finally snagged my attention. Thirty local restaurants have agreed to meet the stipulations of the Vitality Project pledge, a commitment seen as the businesses’ contribution to making Albert Lea “America’s healthiest home town,” in the words of the promotional literature.

They apparently took the plunge after attending workshops presented on behalf of the Project. The educational sessions reportedly showed the operations how they could bolster the community’s health through relatively painless adjustments, like offering the option of smaller portions, or offering fruit or a salad as an alternative to French fries or chips.

The pledge is more than a pinky shake. The restaurateurs apparently sign a document, solemnly committing themselves to the effort.

But, already, they’re being identified locally as healthier places to eat and responsible members of the community. In short, not all of the carrots are served on a plate.

As pledging supporters, they’ll presumably be active participants in the festivities commencing Sept. 8. That’s the kick-off of a six-week “online experience,” in the words of the Project, that was drafted to teach the fundamentals of living longer. Included will be materials like videos and daily communiqués. Given the involvement of restaurants, dining-out habits may be part of the focus.

It’s interesting to see a community embrace such a novel approach to health. But it’s certainly refreshing to see that commitment rising from Main Street, instead of seeing it imposed on communities by lawmakers and carpetbaggers-cum-consumer advocates.

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