Children play on an interactive water exhibit outside the Witte Museum. Photo by Scott Ball.
Children play on an interactive water exhibit at the Witte Museum. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Of the 13- to 18-year-old Bexar County youth who visited the Witte Museum in 2017, 32 percent reported not having eaten any fruit the previous day; 36 percent said they didn’t consume any vegetables the day before; and 62.5 percent said they spend two or more hours watching TV or playing video games on an average school day.

The museum on Tuesday released its third annual report, a compilation of data from the museum’s POWERpass system, which tracks participants’ responses as they make their way through the H-E-B Body Adventure exhibit. The interactive experience collects visitors’ data on healthy eating, exercise, and current lifestyle through activity metrics.

While the data is contingent on self-reporting, Witte staff is confident in its accuracy because results align with other up-to-date research on health disparities in San Antonio, said Bryan Bayles, the Witte’s curator of anthropology and health who submitted the report.

“The problems we are seeing are matching up where we would expect them to,” Bayles said. “We can see by zip code the disproportionate burden of health problems and areas where there is low fruit and vegetable consumption, which coincides with data from other sources,” such as the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bexar County Health Collaborative.

The data represents self-reported information by Witte visitors over the age of 7 who create and use a POWERpass. “Ages 7 and younger aren’t cognitively at a place where we can rely on their answers,” Bayles said, so their information is not included in the final report.

According to the report, 90 percent of Bexar County respondents said there are fun, safe outdoor spaces near where they live at which they can play. That is in large part due to what community partners do with the Witte’s data, the museum’s President and Chief Executive Officer Marise McDermott told the Rivard Report.

“In one case a couple of years ago, young boys age 8 to 13 in certain areas said that they didn’t have a safe place to play,” McDermott said. “At the time, the [San Antonio Metropolitan Health District] was able to identify some pocket parks in that area and go in and refurbish those parks.”

Marise McDermott, president and CEO of the Witteq
Marise McDermott, president and chief executive officer of the Witte

The Witte has engaged more than 500,000 POWERpass users since 2014, which makes for a “huge, unprecedented data set,” McDermott said. Information gathered serves to “encourage change in certain areas where disparities or challenges [exist].”

For the third year in a row, the report indicates that fruit and vegetable consumption was lowest among 13- to 18-year-olds in Bexar County; that age group also has the highest amount of sedentary screen time and soda consumption.

Bayles told the Rivard Report that about 75 percent of the billions of healthcare dollars spent in the United States go toward largely preventable diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and childhood obesity.

“We can turn the tide on these illnesses,” Bayles said. “They are only preventable if we make very basic fundamental changes in the way we eat, live, work, and play.”

Witte Museum Curator of Anthropology and Health Bryan Bayles use a step machine that shows you how much you need to exercise to work off a soda.
Witte Museum Curator of Anthropology and Health Bryan Bayles uses a step machine that shows visitors how many steps it take to work off a soda. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Since the first annual report, the percentage of school-age youth who are in the “obese” category decreased from around 27 percent in 2014 to 25 percent this year. While it may not represent a statistically significant decline, Bayles said the research and corresponding data is in itself something to celebrate.

“We need data at the community level that can be turned into policy changes,” he said. “We aren’t going to turn the tide [for health] unless we have that data, and we are producing it in a fun way [that is] not clinical or scary.”

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.