Brian Mittge: Taking a big step toward healthier lives and communities


A decade ago, I had the chance to hear from a National Geographic explorer who had searched the world for the secrets of people who live long, healthy lives. 

What he discovered was the opposite of the mythological Fountain of Youth — it was practical, common sense and life-changing. I’ve never forgotten about it. (You’ll have a chance to connect directly with the ideas he uncovered in a unique event next Saturday in Centralia. More on that later.)

That speaker and explorer, Dan Buettner, discovered several common practices at a handful of placed around the planet where many people stay vibrant into their second century. He called these places Blue Zones, and has written several books about the foods, activities and social practices that seem to help encourage and make it easy to be healthy in ways that extend and enrich life. 

These places are walkable, and make it fun to go out for a stroll. 

Their delicious foods are based more on plants, with less meat. 

These are places where people constantly get together with friends and neighbors. Instead of surfing social networks, they’re actually socializing. 

A year or so ago several local health care providers funded a Blue Zones project right here in Lewis County. I’ll admit, I was thrilled and I’ve been supportive of the effort. This coming Saturday the Blue Zones Activate Lewis County project takes a big step forward with a community kick-off event.

It’s free and open to the public: Saturday, Feb. 24 from 1-3:30 p.m. at the TransAlta Commons at Centralia College. There will be activities, prizes and samples of cooking from healthy Blue Zones recipes. 

It will also have a big name keynote speaker: Blue Zones co-founder Nick Buettner, brother of the National Geographic explorer who captivated me a decade go. 

Shawna Herriford, leader of the local effort, says the event will help attendees learn how to make healthy choices easier: move naturally, eat wisely, connect with others and have the kind of purpose-driven outlook that they see as part of the culture in Blue Zones around the world. 

And after nearly a year of making connections and initiating conversations, including several community meetings, Blue Zones Activate Lewis county has put forward a short set of suggestions on how we can help make the healthy choice the easy choice for ourselves and our neighbors. (None of these will be mandates; these are all ideas that local leaders, groups, businesses and individuals can take up if they’d like while modifying and building on them.)

The action plan focuses on what they call food systems and the built environment. 

For food systems, their suggestions are:

  • Develop, adopt and enact a comprehensive, community-wide food skills education strategy. “Food skills can be learned and shared in multigenerational settings,” they note. This fits with an idea my wife and I have had: to connect “Grange grandmas” with young people to teach how to cook, sew and support a household. 
  • Further develop, bolster and expand mobile food delivery infrastructure for communities with limited access to healthy food. They envision mobile groceries to bring healthy, fresh food to areas far from grocery stores or farmers markets. 
  • Establish/strengthen a youth-focused garden education program. Many local schools are setting up gardens for kids, but they’ll need help to ensure long-term sustainability and impact. 

For the built environment:

  • Support customed Complete Streets: According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, “Complete Streets” is a program to make sure streets are designed and operated in a way that is safe for drivers, pedestrians, cyclists and others. This can be separate bike lanes, better cross lights, and more. 
  • Establish and support “festival streets” in each major city and interested towns: Centralia’s Pine Street Plaza is a prime example of creating a common area for people to gather and make connections. A half-block closed off to traffic has created a flourishing hub for non-motorized social life. Let’s take this idea on the road. 
  • Help creates an interloop walking system in each major city and interested town using existing tracks, pathways, and surface streets, promotional signage, and audit loop during dark hours: Walking, especially in groups, is a key way that Blue Zones extend the length and quality of life and health.

I’ll see you on Saturday in Centralia to talk about these ideas and more. 

I’m really looking forward to — literally — taking steps together to make our wonderful home communities into places that help us live better, longer. 

Who wouldn’t want to add a couple happier, healthier years to our lives? Let’s do it together.

Brian Mittge’s column appears in The Chronicle each Saturday. He can be reached at