By Darcy Sprague
Slightly more than 35 percent of the Bexar County children who explored the Witte Museum’s H-E-B Body Adventure exhibit over the past three years had not eaten any vegetables the day before their visit. Another 49 percent of them said they had a lot of safe, fun places to play.
Of these children, Dr. Bryan Bayles, the curator of the H-E-B Body Adventure, can tell you how many people came from each zip code, the average age of the participants and some basic data about their health behaviors.
Zip-code level data matters — especially in San Antonio, a city of extreme segregation. Here, people in the richest zip codes have a 20 year longer life expectancy than in the poorest, according to the Metropolitan Health District. When Bayles’ data is organized by ZIP code, the map looks like a photocopy of any poverty or income distribution map of San Antonio.
While the goal of the H-E-B Body Adventure is to teach participants about their body, mindfulness and health behaviors, it also collects anonymous health data through interactive stations with a wide sample size and an equitable spread across the city. Bayles insures this by monitoring where children are coming from and intentionally drawing in participants from areas with low turnout.
“If we want to make a dent in the big killers and the big health issues that are impairing quality of life and lifestyle, they are not going to happen in the clinic,” Bayles said. “They are going to happen in the community … they are going to end upstream, before you are at the dialysis center.”
A lot of the data Bayles collects focuses on behaviors that lead to obesity and obesity-related diseases, such as vegetable and fruit consumption and exercise.
The Body Adventure is equipped with giant fruit and vegetables and a kitchen on the ground floor, stationary bikes that ride along a virtual River Walk, a real heart in a glass box on the second floor, and an interactive table where students can perform virtual autopsies on the top floor. Right now, most of the participants are children, but Bayles hopes to gear it more towards adults in the future.
While not everyone participates in every station, almost 500,000 POWERpasses – the small tickets children use to track their progress through the exhibits – have been given out over the three years.
The third year of data collection at the H-E-B Body exhibit just wrapped up, meaning that Bayles now has enough data to start identifying statistically-sound trends.
What does the data tell us?
“In many ways, San Antonio is a model of the challenges the U.S. is facing,” Bayles said. “We are on the front line of trends in public health.”
San Antonio has a history with several prevalent health issues – this year, the city was ranked No. 14 on the fattest cities list, according to WalletHub. Several years ago, it was No. 2.
The H-E-B Body Adventure addresses health trends in two ways: it helps educate children so they will be more likely to make healthy choices when they grow up, and it collects community-level data so that the Metropolitan Health District and other entities will be able to more specifically address the need.
Bayles said he is not aware of any other city in the U.S. that is collecting data about children’s health this way.
The two most alarming trends revealed by the data are the overconsumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and the low level of vegetable consumption, according to Bayles.
Over three years, the data show 37 percent of children age 8-18 drink at least one soda a day, and 16.2 percent drink two or more.
The most concerning trend is among 13-18 year olds; 37.7 percent consume at least one soda a day and 20.3 percent consume two or more.
Bayles said sugary beverage consumption is likely worse than that, because the survey does not ask about juice or coffee.
Vegetable consumption is a similar issue. Thirty-four percent of children aged 8-18 said they did not consume any vegetables the day before attending the H-E-B Body Adventure and only 21 percent reported eating vegetables often.
Again, the worst trend was among 13-18 year olds, 35.8 percent of which ate no vegetables the day before.
Bayles say the data reveals that the 13-18 year old population is the most important to target. He believes vegetable and sugary drink consumption issues are at the crux of San Antonio’s obesity problem.
Out of all H-E-B Body Adventure visitors over the past three years, 42.7 percent of 8-12 year olds, 44.4 percent of 13-18 year olds, and 71.8 percent of those 19 or older were overweight or obese.
What the data means for the city
The data will be used in various ways to address the city’s health issues. Bayles plans on distributing the data through partnerships with organizations that can act on it. For example, he has given the Parks and Recreation Department data about where the most children report they do not have a safe place to play outside, like in the near West and near South sides where 13.3 percent or more of children reported having no safe places around them.
“We can be a model for cities to emulate rather than just keep showing up on the fattest cities list.” Bayles said. “Knock on wood, that is all behind us.”
In the future, Bayles is hoping to release smaller, more frequent reports that analyze one trend or subtopic found among the data. He also wants to get more adults involved by rebranding the H-E-B Body Adventure as a family exhibit and possibly adding a few new features that will target high school students and adults.
How is the data equitably spread
The maps featured in Bayles’ report – the ones showing where fewest children felt they had a safe place to play, ate the fewest fruits and vegetables, and drank the most soda – mirror any economic segregation map of San Antonio. The near West Side and other low-income areas have the highest concentration of bad health behaviors and the highest rates of obesity.
Bayles is aware that the low-income areas struggle the most with health, so he intentionally draws school and families from those areas to the Witte.
Every Tuesday, general admission to the museum is waived so that all families can enjoy the exhibits. Bayles works with the Witte’s marketing team to target families in ZIP codes with lower attendance.
He also reaches out to districts and schools that do not schedule field trips to the Witte. The biggest inhibitor is the cost of transportation, so he works directly with principals and superintendents to secure funding to cover the expense. The Harvey Najim Family Foundation – one the H-E-B Body Adventure sponsors – provides scholarships for low-income school field trips.
These efforts result not only in a more diverse group of children attending the exhibit, but in more equitable data.
“Sometimes I have conversations with kids where they tell me this is the first time they have ever been to a museum,” Bayles said.
The Article was originally published on San Antonio bodies, ZIP code by ZIP code.