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Equality Health Foundation activates Phoenix ‘Blue Zone’ socioeconomic revitalization endeavor

Photo of Downtown Phoenix Blue Zone ZIP codes

Phoenix collaboration seeks to solve socioeconomic inequities

By Terrance Thornton | Digital Free Press

There are a total of nine Phoenix-area ZIP codes where officials at the Equality Health Foundation believe residents there live 14 fewer years than their counterparts in other areas of the region.

Those local ZIP codes — an acronym for Zone Improvement Plan — are used by the United States Postal Service for parcel delivery, but a benefit to all, experts say, is these zones help illustrate through data points the socioeconomic and health status of swaths of people.

Today, those data points are being used in conjunction with tenets of the “Blue Zones Activate” model in the southern region of the Phoenix metropolitan area to improve, invest and revitalize downtrodden areas with residents there facing inequitable economic consequences and healthcare outcomes because of where they sleep at night.

“We created this foundation because when you look at what impacts the health of individuals or even entire communities, it is more than just physical and mental health,” said Tomás León, president of the Equality Health Foundation, in a July phone interview with the Arizona Digital Free Press.

“We believe the social and economic factors that impact health and health outcomes is impacted because of environments. We believe everyone would agree we all need equal access to health. We created a foundation to determine exactly how these environmental factors are impacting our communities.”

Officials at Equality Health say the effort is an integrated, holistic and tech-enabled delivery system focused on improving the health of diverse populations.

A view of the south entrance to Grand Canyon University from Camelback Road and 33rd Avenue looking toward the South Mountain community. (File Photos/

Coined, “The Blue Zones Activate Greater South Phoenix Initiative,” ZIP codes under examination are:

  • 85009 — Estrella community with a population of 52,000.
  • 85040 — South Mountain community, population 29,000.
  • 85034 — Central City community, population of 5,500.
  • 85042 — Phoenix community, population of 41,000.
  • 85339 — Laveen community, population of 35,500.
  • 85041 — Laveen community, population of 54,000.
  • 85003 — Phoenix community, population of 9,400.
  • 85007 — Phoenix community, population of 14,000.
  • 85004 — Phoenix community, population of 5,000.

Mr. León points out the Blue Zones pursuit in and around the Phoenix metropolitan area include the Equality Health Foundation, United Healthcare Community Plan of Arizona and the Valley of the Sun United Way. Also, Phoenix dignitaries including Mayor Kate Gallego are steadfast supporters of the public-private pursuit.

“What we are trying to provide through research-based efforts is enable residents a greater health equity and ending health disparities in greater south Phoenix,” he said.

“We know there are barriers to delivering services to underserved communities, but to make this level playing field it requires the work of collaboration between community partners. Once we understand the root cause of issues impacting health, we can bring education and access to transitional efforts.”

In all, Mr. León says, there are 250,000 people in the southern Phoenix region facing difficult socioeconomic conditions not fully understood.

“We chose the Blue Zone model because it is research-based with real outcomes,” he said. “What has happened in other communities is what they essentially did was make the healthiest choice the easiest choice for residents.”

The program, “Blue Zones Activate” is a three-phase program based on principles identified during a 20-year worldwide longevity study commissioned by National Geographic and detailed in the New York Times bestseller “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest and The Blue Zones Solution” by Dan Buettner.

An evidence-based model

Mr. León says the “Blue Zones Activate” model has been deployed in more than 70 communities across the nation.

“This is evidence-based and we at the Equality Health Foundation felt it was a good model for us to follow,” he said. “What has ultimately proven through the book published by Dan Buettner was not much of a surprise for those us of us who have been in the diversity-inclusion space. And for me, it is a lifelong passion.”

The goals of the initiative include benefits to all who call the Phoenix metropolitan area home, Mr. León contends. Those goals may include:

  • Generating significant medical cost savings and productivity improvement;
  • Lowering the obesity rate;
  • Lowering smoking rates;
  • Increasing vegetable consumption;
  • Increasing daily physical activity levels;
  • Driving significant media attention to your community;
  • Hiring and training community coalitions to lead and sustain this work; and
  • Leveraging this inclusive and systematic approach to secure both public and private sector grants and gifts.

Mr. León says the COVID-19 pandemic put more of a spotlight on places in the Phoenix metropolitan area where certain realities exist.

“What the pandemic did was put a spotlight on historical inequity that was just exacerbated,” he said. “We want to get behind the residents of south Phoenix to create a better path.”

In late August, a report of the initiative’s findings will be published and provided to community partnership including elected leaders at Phoenix City Hall, 200 W. Washington St.

“In March of this year we shared with the community feasibility and readiness assessments,” Mr. León said of trying to build and enhance work already being done in Phoenix to help under-served communities.

“The next phase is sharing this report of the assessment findings at the end of August — that way we can get some feedback and whether or not the priorities are the right ones for us to be responding.”

Mr. León says the ultimate mission of the effort is to improve the lives of those who call Phoenix home, no matter the ZIP code.

“We don’t want to duplicate or replicate anything that is happening, we want to leverage and build upon it,” he said. “We want to fill in the gaps and our need to address these policy issues. People spend the majority of their lives within a 10-15 mile radius of where they work, live and pray. This model lends itself to improve people’s surroundings. What are the hidden costs of healthcare? We want to find out.”

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