City, county, business and health care leaders have a decision to make on whether entities in the Grand Forks community should join a national wellness organization’s plan that aims to improve residents’ and workers’ physical and mental well-being while saving money in the process.

Local leaders, at a roundtable meeting Monday, Aug. 1, at the Alerus Center, heard a pitch from administrators of the Blue Zones Project about potential plans to improve the health of local residents. The cost of buying into the program runs into the millions of dollars, and the clock is ticking on federal funding that would take some of the sting out of the price tag. Leaders have until the end of August to make a decision to enter a contract with the Blue Zones Project, or see more than $2 million of American Rescue Plan funding, allocated by the state for health promotion, be used for other purposes.

“Are we ready to bring something like this here to Grand Forks, and if not, what do we need to do to become ready?” Kristi Hall-Jiran, chief philanthropy and partnership officer at Altru Health System, asked at Monday’s meeting. “I'll give you the short answer right up front: The answer is yes, and the time is right now.”

According to Dan Buettner Jr., director of solutions at Blue Zones, the organization works with communities to create changes that encourage people to live healthier lifestyles. That could come in the form of encouraging restaurants to offer healthier choices by default. Entrees, Buettner said, could be served with fruit instead of french fries, though the latter would be available upon request. The long-term goal is to establish a culture of eating healthier.

According to Janna Pastir, director of health promotion for the North Dakota Department of Health, the state has allocated $2.5 million to be split evenly between two communities to help offset the cost incurred to contract with Blue Zones. The ticking clock on those funds aside, it costs $6.76 million to enter a four-year agreement with the organization, said Buettner. After that period, communities usually administer the program locally, rather than sign another contract. Fargo, along with Sanford Health, Pastir said, also is considering entering an agreement with the organization.

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Buettner said the ball is in local leaders’ court to make the next move. He stressed the dollar amount of the contract is outweighed by the financial benefits of improved health. According to Blue Zones, medical costs are set to increase by 5.23% each year, totaling $5.8 billion across 10 years, and lost productivity will top $2 billion for the same time period.

Hall-Jiran said Altru is prepared to commit a certain amount of cash toward the contract, but the final amount has yet to be worked out. The city, Grand Forks County and local businesses would need to contribute the remainder, should a contract be signed. Meeting the fee, Buettner said, has always been a group effort.

“Altru shouldn't be the one carrying the bag,” he said. “In the state (there has) been a spark with their contribution. We've done this 61 times and it's always a coalition of sponsors.”

City Administrator Todd Feland said city officials are interested in working with Blue Zones, but more due diligence is needed before making a decision on signing a contract. A discussion needs to be had about whether the city could enact health-conscious policies of its own, as well as how to finance a large contract with Blue Zones. Feland said he is aware of the need for urgency, given the expiration date of federal funds, and that the matter will be discussed at an upcoming City Council meeting.