Note to readers: The News-Press and Naples Daily News partnered with an FGCU solutions journalism class during the 2020 spring semester. This is one in a series of stories the students produced.
In 2016, Franck Legrand Jr. visited the doctor with a headache. He left with news that he would soon die. He was 37 years old and weighed 305 pounds.
The headaches Legrand had been experiencing all week were a symptom of his high blood pressure. Legrand, who used to chuckle at the sight of a salad, was told he needed to lose weight to avoid seizures, heart attacks and premature death.
“The feeling is that you’re invincible until you’re not,” Legrand said. “Every time I saw my doctor, he always mentioned the death part. It drives the point home.”
In one year, Legrand lost more than 100 pounds by changing his eating habits.
“People say ‘Hey Franck. What’s up with you? Where did the rest of you go?’” said David Longfield-Smith, Blue Zones Project organization lead. “He’s become quite an inspiration for others.”
Health and wellness: Live long and prosper? Naples among top places in U.S. for that, says Parade magazine
More: Blue Zones: Fitness is key to senior health
What is the Blue Zones Project?
The Blue Zones Project is a community-wide initiative that encourages healthier lifestyles and choices. Immokalee is considered a food desert: an area that lacks access to healthy, affordable food. However, Legrand’s family businesses have been working with Blue Zones Project to provide the Immokalee community with healthy food options.
National Geographic found five places in the world where people live longer, healthier lives and called them “Blue Zones”.
Smith, 61, works with Blue Zones Project in Southwest Florida helping local employers, restaurants, and grocery stores increase healthier food options.
Despite being on Good Morning America, Oprah, and the Today Show, Smith says many people in Immokalee don’t have access to learning more about Blue Zones Project.
“It’s going to be a challenge in Immokalee because of the immigration, culture and lack of communication,” Smith said. “We need to find that real simple message and they could see that message come to life.”
Franck Legrand Jr. is a real-life example of the Blue Zones message.
Legrand Caribbean Market has been a staple in Immokalee for more than 20 years. Franck Legrand Sr. opened the family business in 1997. In 2011, he died in a car crash .
Now, Legrand Jr. serves as the general manager of Legrand Caribbean Market.
“That’s what slowly brought us from different parts of Florida back home,” Legrand’s sister Francesca Sainvilus said. “We wanted to support my mom and try to hold things together and manage the store.”
When his father passed, Legrand weighed about 250 pounds.
“Before I knew it, a year went by and I was gaining weight massively,” Legrand said. “We went through so much, like a roller coaster ride. It was like one thing after another.”
A year after his father passed, Legrand’s wife experienced childbirth complications. Legrand lost his wife and his baby. The following year, his mother passed away too. These losses are ultimately what led to Legrand’s weight gain.
Previously: Hospital system becomes Blue Zones standout
And: Blue Zones Project adds four more companies
“We’ve already lost too many people,” Legrand said. “I started to realize I am the only male figure in the family right now.”
This is what motivated Legrand to lose weight and change his lifestyle. In an effort to save his own life, Legrand began researching health benefits of various foods.
Legrand heard about Blue Zones Project through his brother-in-law and is now working with Smith to make Legrand Caribbean Market Blue Zones Project approved.
“Healthy eating was never my thing, so I was curious about Blue Zones Project,” Legrand said. “How are these people living so long? The Blue Zone project promotes so many things that could actually make your life better. The more you know about it, the better you live and feel.”
Today, Legrand weighs around 210 pounds.
Legrand Caribbean Market
Brightly colored fruits and vegetables greet customers as they enter the market. When reaching in the cooler for a drink, bottles of water are the first thing to touch a customer’s fingertips. Healthy snacks perch near the register for customers to grab on their way out.
According to Legrand, he arranged the market this way to promotes healthier choices.
“His weight loss has helped people want to make those choices,” Sainvilus said. “They say, “You’re like half your size. What did you do?’ and he tells them.”
Legrand shares his story, advice, and research to community members who visit the market.
“People come in the store and they’ll pretty much tell me their whole life story,” Legrand said. “When the next person comes through the door, I want to help them even more because you see that you’ve made a change.”
According to Sainvilus, most of the people shopping at the market speak Spanish or Haitian Creole as a first language, or only speak those languages.
“There’s a lot of language barriers for those people, because there’s not a lot of literature in their languages about healthy eating,” Sainvilus said. “So, when they come to a comfortable place here at the store, they feel comfortable gaining information in their language about how to choose those healthier options.”
Legrand pushes customers to purchase the same healthy food he eats.
“He’s not talking to people that can Google it,” Sainvilus said. “My brother is talking to people that maybe don’t have access to the internet, don’t have access to reading it or can’t read at all.”
Legrand also helps customers find what is best for any dietary issues or restrictions they may have.
“Communication and education are key to everything and a lot of people here lack that education,” Legrand said. “It’s a great feeling to help people who are struggling to find out what is good for them. They think since this is what I’ve always eaten, it must be good.”
Her brother’s weight loss and the community’s wishes for healthier food is what motivated Sainvilus to become a part of the Blue Zones movement.
In 2016, Sainvilus fulfilled Franck Sr.’s dream of opening a restaurant. Around the same time, the family learned of the Blue Zones Project at a county meeting.
“We never expected people to come here and choose a healthy option, but when we put it on the menu, they try it,” Sainvilus said. “They probably came in here for something fried or savory, but when you put on the board that it’s Blue Zones inspired, people just want to know what it is.”
Smith began working with the family after Fify’s Caribbean Cuisine opened and soon became like family.
“One of the things I’m probably most proud of is earning the title Uncle Dave,” Smith said. “I genuinely liked them and care about them and I was so touched by her desire to participate.”
Smith looks at a restaurant’s menu, what ingredients and dishes they already have, and helps them re-imagine how they could be healthier.
“We felt like there was no other place for most of our client base to go, so we were trying to beat all the Blue Zone hurdles to bring healthy food to clients that would probably not go anywhere else,” Sainvilus said.
Fify’s Caribbean Cuisine became Blue Zones Project approved Feb. 4, 2020.
“Doing the Blue Zone menu is like the icing on the cake.” Sainvilus said. “It’s not just about trying to make sales. This is bigger. National Geographic big — like you’re part of the greater concept. Especially being in this food desert, I think that it’s so worth it. It’s like a diamond in the rough.”
Before the restaurant became Blue Zones Project approved, Legrand asked for special, healthy dishes not on the menu.
“At the market, he would promote what we cooked just for him,” Sainvilus said. “Like we don’t serve that, but he started sending people here to get a healthier option.”
Now when customers come in, they can order “Franck’s Favorite”: boiled plantain, onion, peppers, and black beans on brown rice.
Blue Zones Project
For more information about Blue Zones Project visit communities.bluezonesproject.com.