How three SoCal beach cities help clear the path for healthful choices

You could always have ordered a salad at Eat at Joe's, just in from the Pacific in Redondo Beach. But orders were more likely to be the John Wayne Special, with eggs, cheese, home fries and sausage.

Then owner Alex Jordan grouped the more healthful items (the soups, salads, a no-bun burger, oatmeal) with some new healthful dishes and listed them on a center page of the menu that he titled "Healthier Menu."

It made a big difference — 25% of the orders come from that page, and one of his top sellers is the Gobbler Scramble, with brown rice or sweet potatoes, Jordan says. "It's a win-win. This is really helping my business."

Eat at Joe's is just one of more than 90 restaurants that have added or highlighted healthful choices as part of an effort in Hermosa, Manhattan and Redondo beaches to improve everyone's health by changing the environment and making it easier to make healthful choices.

The effort to improve residents' health has been spearheaded by the Beach Cities Health District, a public agency that focuses on prevention and had partnered with Healthways, a company based in Franklin, Tenn., that focuses on workplace health. For five years the district has been working to make the communities a Blue Zone: a place where people are exceptionally healthy and live exceptionally long lives.

With support from public and private institutions, and the district's $1.8 million over three years, the effort has been snaking into policy and practice, including projects to get kids walking to school, make the communities more bike- and pedestrian-friendly, cut smoking rates, add community gardens, offer discounts for healthful purchases and provide free lectures and classes.

Susan Burden, the chief executive at the Beach Cities Health District, says she looked at the statistics showing that 75% to 80% of chronic disease was preventable.

"This is not OK. This is on our watch," Burden says.

About 21,000 people from the three communities have signed Blue Zone pledges, agreeing to take on at least one change: Reorganize the kitchen, get a pet, socialize in the community.

Beach community residents can join a moai, or informal support group that is based on a tradition in Okinawa, Japan. There can be walking moais, potluck moais or gardening moais. The idea is that the social interaction is as important as the activity.

Last month, Redondo Beach completed a bike path improvement project with some bicycle lanes protected by a landscaped buffer. And there are plans to make the Pacific Coast Highway in Hermosa Beach "walkable, bikeable and enjoyable," Burden says. "Mayor [Pete] Tucker is ready to go."

At Grow, a grocery store in Manhattan Beach, there are no candy bars by the registers. There is, however, a bushel basket of apples — free for the taking to kids. The store also dropped sodas and juices that were too sugary from its stock, owner Barry Fisher says.

Thirteen schools in the three communities have "walking school buses." Students — parents too, if they like — meet a mile from school to walk the rest of the way. In Redondo Beach, "they've walked 45,000 miles — almost 2 million calories" in the 2013-14 school year, says Steven Keller, the superintendent.

Keller, who's thin but says he works at it, also ditched cookie dough sales for fundraisers and reformed school celebrations. "I haven't seen a cupcake on campus for years. You don't see Krispy Kremes or Sprinkles."

In Keller's district, all eight elementary schools have gardens and get lessons in planting, pests, composting — and tasting the harvest. The schools don't use physical activity — running laps, say — as punishment, so no one gets the idea that exercise is negative.

All summer, free Zumba classes in parks draw as many as 500 people of all ages and backgrounds for an evening hour of exercise. If you come to a class, you get a gym discount and a chance at other prizes.

Aside from the turnout at those classes, signs that the effort is working include a crowd of 1,100 people who attended a lecture on living with purpose and mindfulness; a poll showing that the number of people who say they exercise regularly went from 60% in 2010 to 66% in 2012 and that smoking has declined 28% in those years.

And while those relatively well-off beach communities might look pretty healthy, with outdoor activities galore, they face childhood overweight rates at only slightly less than the national average, and according to a Gallup Poll, stress and anger levels are among the highest in the nation.

Fisher acknowledges that many residents of the beach cities are economic haves — making them able to buy healthful food, get good medical care or join a gym. But he understands how "the stress levels were off the charts."

For him too: "I work extremely hard. I have a massive mount of stress." But Fisher found a solution in the Blue Zones project. He walks every morning with his wife.


The Blue Zone pledge attracts a wave of South Bay folks

About 21,000 people in Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach have signed the Blue Zones pledge to make at least one positive change to their health. Here are some of the 18 changes they can choose:

I will get a bicycle (or clean or repair my current bicycle) and a bike helmet.

I will get a dog.

I will stock my kitchen with 10-inch plates and tall, narrow glasses. (These have been shown in studies to get people to eat and drink less.)

I will designate my home as a smoke-free zone.

I will discover my purpose.

I will participate in plant-based cooking classes.

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