The pilot program among Bloomington, Edina and Richfield yielded trails, healthier options and perhaps a new culture.
What began in Bloomington, Edina and Richfield with mayors dancing with the do-groove guy has ended with healthful treats at concession stands, city meetings that take place while walking and a new farmers market.
An 18-month pilot project involving the three cities and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota ended this spring, but city officials say the changes that resulted from being a “do.town” are real and lasting.
“We didn’t expect everyone to get healthy, because that’s impossible,” said Richfield Mayor Debbie Goettel. “We were hoping for incremental steps to move forward, and that’s what we got.
“That’s how change happens. Now we’re carrying this forward.”
The project, an experiment by Blue Cross, used the three mayors to “champion the vision of communities where the healthy choice is the easy choice,” said Blue Cross’ Katherine Bass, who managed the project.
Do.town’s goal was to use high-level leadership to bring residents together, fostering a public discussion about how their cities should be places where residents live long, healthy lives, Bass said. Blue Cross contributed staff and expertise. The cities built a database of 4,000 people who said they were interested in promoting health in their hometowns.
Blue Cross is still evaluating the project’s results. While it was the promotion that grabbed the public eye — including an Edina “council meeting” that turned into a dancing flash mob — the changes were often to processes that were less visible. Bass said she has a list of nearly 40 changes or initiatives that started during do.town’s 18 months. All three cities worked on trail and bike plans, increased healthful food options at concessions and created policies to include planning for sidewalks and bike lanes in street projects.
Eighteen businesses in the three cities met to talk about policies on exercise, nutrition, tobacco and wellness. Some of those firms continue to meet.
Bloomington organized a community gardening group and a resident bike task force, added healthful-cooking demonstrations at its farmers market and drafted a policy to make sure nutritious foods are available in city buildings. The city’s youth athletic leagues started talking about how to reach a more diverse community.
Edina added a community garden, created a walking path at Braemar Ice Arena, added school gardens and an edible playground (adorned with colorful garden beds), created a city wellness policy and added food-stamp capability at its farmers market. Using a franchise fee, the city will collect $2.90 per household per month to raise over $1 million a year to pay for nonmotorized transportation improvements like safe biking and walking routes to schools and parks.
Richfield added a resident-led bike task force, created a satellite farmers market to reach a broader audience, developed school wellness committees, promoted healthful-cooking demonstrations at its farmers markets and expanded open gym time to give people more exercise opportunities. Education about portion size and healthy eating reached kids as young as preschool age. At City Hall, if a staff meeting involves only a few people, the group sometimes hits nearby trails and walks while carrying out their discussion.
Not all changes were popular. Some parents complained when candy was pulled from concessions at Edina’s Braemar Ice Arena. But concession sales there actually increased. Many changes at city arena and aquatic center concession stands were so subtle that people either didn’t notice or didn’t bother to grouse about them. Favorites such as hot dogs, popcorn and nachos remain, but the corn is popped with healthier oils and nachos are made with baked chips and low-fat cheese. The number of ice cream choices was cut and fruit, nuts, frozen juice treats and yogurt were added. Supersized servings of soda pop shrank from 24 to 20 ounces.
At the Bloomington aquatic center, where only 13 percent of menu items fit healthier standards at the start, 42 percent meet those guidelines now. Unhealthy items were cut so healthier choices stood out more, said Joan Bulfer, city nutritionist and health promotion specialist. Deli sandwiches with fresh spinach — “an actual vegetable!” Bulfer joked — were added.
When Richfield used display cases to show off some of the new choices, “they flew off the shelves,” Goettel said.
Edina Mayor Jim Hovland, whom Goettel credited as a key force behind do.town, has started a “Walk With the Mayor” program every third Saturday morning of the month, meeting with people to walk a couple of miles and chat.
Hovland said he is somewhat surprised by how much do.town accomplished in just 18 months. He believes further results will show up later. He said he was struck by how “revved up” elementary students in his city were over community gardens and talk of healthy living, which could promote lifestyle changes that won’t be seen until they’re adults.
There are rumors of a video to sum up the project. Hovland, Goettel and Bloomington’s Gene Winstead danced for the cameras with a popular Blue Cross ad’s middle-aged, maroon-vested dancer when the do.town project started. But Hovland said he has one request: Please don’t make me dance again.
“A dancing Norwegian, that’s an oxymoron,” he said.
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380