During the Witte Museum H-E-B Body Adventure media preview event May 23, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The Witte Museum’s H-E-B Body Adventure, possibly the most innovative health and fitness exhibit in the United States, has the potential, if used with creativity, daring and political will, to really benefit the health of children and adults. The Body Adventure is a high-tech, user-friendly, and fun series of interactive learning modules, housed in a tree house next to the head waters of the San Antonio River.

What’s not to love? In its first year of operation, the Body Adventure delighted 113,000 school-aged children, and more than 50,000 adults. “Fit Pass” electronics embedded in each module collect de-identified information including height and weight, nutritional habits and attitudes, favorite sports and perceptions of safe neighborhood play areas and then aggregates the data into an accurate, timely and very rich picture of health in San Antonio. This picture can guide those who care to gradually improve the health of our ailing community.

We have been repeatedly reminded that we live in a community where two-thirds of the population is overweight or obese and 18% have diabetes, one of the least fit metro areas in the country. The Body Adventure first year data demonstrates that 45% of San Antonians are already overweight or obese by the time they are 18 years old, 35% of teens do not regularly eat vegetables and 38% drink one or more sodas every day. Should we not be investing more to direct our children away from a lifetime of weight problems and diabetes? Isn’t that the point of collecting this data?

The ground floor of the H-E-B Body Adventure. Photo by Joan Vinson.
The ground floor of the H-E-B Body Adventure. Photo by Joan Vinson.

Other very important information from the Body Adventure comes from the sophisticated geo-mapping capability of Metro Health and demonstrates that socio-economically driven geographical disparities in San Antonio are seriously out of whack. In some zip codes, up to 50% of all children do not regularly eat vegetables. And in some of the same zip codes, 58% of all children drink one or more sodas every day. This is important because among adults drinking soda every day is closely associated with obesity and diabetes. Thus, it is not surprising that the unhealthy soda habit often begins in childhood. Overlaying the Metro Health maps, one is not surprised to see that the two most nearly identical are overweight/obesity and drinking soda every day. Relative to exercise, so essential for healthy development, up to 29% of children in some zip codes say there are no “fun, safe places to go outside and play.”

Metro Health and University Health Systems invested considerable capital and scientific expertise in helping the Witte develop the H-E-B Body Adventure. However, the biggest investor was, of course, H-E-B. Dominant local grocer and largest local employer, deriving most of its wealth from San Antonio, H-E-B has a big stake in the health of the community, its workforce and customers. And it appears to be seriously committed to improving it.

If, upon entering H-E-B Central Market in toney Alamo Heights, you take a sharp left and walk past the prepared salads and gourmet coffee, you will enter a fabulous fruit and vegetable maze that is difficult to escape from as you are enticed by the bright colors and interesting shapes arranged on mounds of crushed ice. A few miles away at the Eastside H-E-B on Houston Street and New Braunfels Avenue, fruit and veggies are located in a small corner just to the right of the entrance. There, even though the total space is only about 10% of that at Central Market, the produce is very nicely displayed and looks just as fresh and appetizing. My guess is that size of display is simply commensurate with how much customers buy. Makes sense, but how might folks be induced to eat more fruits and veggies in neighborhoods like the Eastside where so many kids go without? H-E-B may actually be heading in that direction based on the transformation that took place in the Collins Garden three years ago.

A customer shops for fresh produce at Central Market. Photo by Scott Ball.
A customer shops for fresh produce at Central Market. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Collins Garden is a Southside neighborhood just off Nogalitos Street, that, under the leadership of Metro Health, transformed its built environment with park improvements, safe routes to schools, traffic adjustments to protect bikers and pedestrians and plenty of community involvement. Surrounding the park, Collins Garden Elementary School and the public library form part of the “healthy hub” as does a corner H-E-B store. In 2013, Collins Garden was appropriately chosen as the site to announce the remarkable improvement in Bexar County obesity rates.

Although it was mostly good news, Mayor Julián Castro and others noted that 25% of people who live in that neighborhood ate no vegetables, even with an H-E-B on the corner. Perhaps H-E-B took that as a challenge, or perhaps it was already in the works. In any case, a beautiful new H-E-B now stands on the site of the former seriously aging one and it has a vast fruit and vegetable section. It is also of note that H-E-B is the prime sponsor of the Mayor’s Fitness Council “Veg Out!” campaign.

The community activism of H-E-B and the Witte Museum is very encouraging. But sceptics can and should ask “Will it do any good?’ Fortunately, we can answer that question by using the huge trove of data supplied by the H-E-B Body Adventure, provided on a quarterly basis to Metro Health for analysis.

The data set, provided in real time, is large enough to be broken down by age, grade, school and neighborhood. Should we not focus on those neighborhoods where children are most awash in soda and least likely to enjoy fruits and vegetables? We could put some teeth in the “Veg Out!” campaign by monitoring its effect on these measures in targeted neighborhoods. If the needle is not moving, let’s take a multidisciplinary approach for those most in need: not just advertising but also school and community programing and infrastructure improvements to make neighborhoods safer, more walkable and bikeable, with improved green spaces and community gardens. Let’s do our best where the need is greatest and count our success not by good feelings but by measurable results. The health, unity and economic prosperity of our community depend on it.

*Featured/top image: The Witte Museum H-E-B Body Adventure. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

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Dr. Thomas Schlenker

Dr. Thomas Schlenker

Dr. Thomas Schlenker, former San Antonio Metropolitan Health District director (2011-2015), is a pediatrician who spent many years caring for sick children in Wisconsin and Mexico as well as directing...