Most of our health and well-being is determined not by genetics or medical care, but by the settings where we spend most of our time. Communities can powerfully impact quality of life by working to ensure that the places and spaces where we spend time— including home, the grocery store or work—are set up to make the healthy choice the easy choice. This is particularly important in schools, where students and staff not only benefit from an environment focused on day-to-day well-being, but also one that’s set up to teach healthy habits.

That’s why the local well-being initiative, Blue Zones Project-Umpqua, will be partnering with the region’s schools to deepen their well-being programs, activities, and policies. Blue Zones Project is a community-led effort where a local staff of four works closely with committees of volunteers focused on community sectors including worksites, faith-based communities, grocery stores and, of course, schools.

Recently, local Blue Zones Project staff attended a Northwest Forum on healthy, climate-friendly food service in schools in Troutdale. The conference showcased the positive outcomes of healthy foods in school environments and offered practical information about how to manage a healthy food service. The conference also offered an opportunity for youth and nutrition advocates to share ideas on improving the health of schools, integrating a positive structure within school meals, and helping the local economy.

While great efforts are already underway in our area, Blue Zones Project staff came home inspired about what the Umpqua region can apply to our own healthy school food systems. We’re thinking about school cafeterias as places where kids learn the basics of eating well and wisely.

Children’s health advocate Suzy Amis Cameron, the conference keynote speaker and wife of movie director James Cameron, provided a description of her success as the founder of MUSE School in southern California, where gardening is integrated into school curricula.

The school’s garden not only supplies copious amounts of fresh produce for students and staff, it also provides a learning lab for students, who benefit from hands-on lessons in botany, biology, nutrition and math.

The conference also showcased examples of smart and effective programs closer to home. Jackie Wilson, from Oregon Green Schools, spoke about how Bend-La Pine schools developed relationships with local farmers to directly source fresh fruits and vegetables, while also benefiting the local farm economy.

Presenter Amy Webster, food and nutrition coordinator from Forward Food, educates school staff throughout Washington and Oregon on cooking easy, healthy and enjoyable food. Webster highlighted the importance of helping kids discover that whole grains and plant-based foods can be delicious. She encouraged school staff to incorporate a Lean and Green Wednesday once a month, slowly moving to a more frequent schedule.

The Blue Zones Project-Umpqua Schools Sector Committee, comprised of local school administrators, teachers, child health advocates and representatives from children’s programs, plans to bring Webster to our area to share insights and expertise with local schools. Trina McClure-Gwaltney, manager of Mercy Foundation’s Healthy Kids Outreach Program, and Analicia Nicholson, director of learning with the Douglas Education Service District, serve as committee co-chairs.

Blue Zones Project-Umpqua will be sharing well-being best practices and support with schools as it works to help make our neighborhoods healthier, happier places to live, learn and play.

Juliete Palenshus is the Engagement lead for the Blue Zones Project-Umpqua. For information, go to bluezonesprojectumpqua

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Dan Bain is the health reporter for The News-Review. He previously worked at KPIC and 541 Radio.

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