Drink Up: Schools Must Provide More Water During Meals

By Jane Meredith Adams, EdSource Today

A student fills a reusable water bottle at a hydration station at Fort Bragg High School. (Jennifer McClendon/Network for a Healthy California)

Hydration stations like this one at Fort Bragg High School are popular with students. (Jennifer McClendon/Network for a Healthy California)

Let them drink water.

That’s the message of a new federal regulation that requires schools to expand free water service for students at meals, beginning this September.

As a drink with zero calories, low cost and near-ubiquitous availability, water would seem an obvious choice for a school beverage, given the epidemic of obesity among California children. But making drinking water available in cafeterias has been a challenge for some schools, despite state and federal laws requiring that they do so at lunch. This new regulation, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for the first time requires free drinking water at breakfast — and is the latest legal prod in the effort to bring water instead of sugary drinks into the mouths of students.

“This regulation is one more push toward raising awareness,” said Karla Hampton, co-author of the 2012 policy brief “Fulfilling the Promise of Free Water in K-12 Schools,” produced by researchers at UCSF and two advocacy groups.

The next step, she acknowledged, is to persuade reluctant students to give tap water a chance. “When it’s not just coming out of a dirty old fountain, when you have ice cubes, water containers and clean water in schools, they like it,” she said.

Dry campuses

Meeting the legal requirement could be as simple as providing pitchers of water and cups in the cafeteria, or as advanced as installing high-tech “hydration stations” that provide chilled, filtered water, as several school districts have already done.

Still, one in four California schools surveyed in 2011 did not provide free, clean water to students in places where food was served, according to a UCSF study. School staff cited a number of causes, including lack of awareness of legislation, a dearth of functional water fountains, and concern about the cost of making water available in cafeterias.

“It’s a challenge,” Hampton said. “Someone is coming in telling you to change your routine. ‘How much is this going to cost? Where do we get these hydration stations?’”

Recent state and federal laws require schools to provide free drinking water where lunch is served. But the state law does not include enforcement mechanisms to make sure campuses comply. The federal law requires the California Department of Education to audit districts –- but not every school. Starting this year, audits will be conducted once every three years, up from every five years.

“It’s really in the hands of school districts, schools, teachers, parents and students” to prod schools to provide water at meal service, said Quang Dang, senior attorney at ChangeLab Solutions. Free, fresh water at meals is just a start, he said. “There could be stronger regulations to make water available to kids throughout the school day.”

Cafeteria beverages have included milk and juice offered at free or reduced price through the National School Lunch Program, with soda and sports drinks available for sale in vending machines. Those high-calorie sugary drinks will be eliminated from school vending machines by 2014-15, according to the new U.S.D.A. regulations, and advocates hope the change will spur schools to make cold water an appealing option for students.

Confusion, concern

Yet the question of how to provide free drinking water in cafeterias has generated concern and confusion in some districts, starting with the role of the school water fountain, said Dr. Anisha Patel, UCSF pediatrics professor and an expert on water in California schools. Because water fountains have long been the sole source of drinking water for students, some administrators believed fountains would come under scrutiny, a disheartening prospect in schools that struggle with aging plumbing infrastructure and cutbacks in custodial service. In a 2009 survey of students in 23 schools, 70 percent said that the water fountains at their school looked “disgusting” and dispensed water that looked “gross,” according to the nonprofit Northcoast Nutrition and Fitness Collaborative. But improving water fountains is not the focus of the laws, unless they are located in cafeterias, and most of them are not.

Some school staff were also under the erroneous impression that the National School Lunch Program, which encourages children to drink milk, prohibited offering free drinking water next to milk.

And then there’s the lurking question in some districts of whether tap water is safe. Elevated lead levels were found in drinking water at some schools in Los Angeles during a 2008 investigation, and schools in the Central Valley struggle with water supplies contaminated with nitrates and arsenic.

The Roseville City School District is an example of a straightforward approach to providing water in cafeterias. “We just put an Igloo (water dispenser) out there and some cups and put home-type filters on faucets to take out the minerals,” said Rene Yamashiro, food service director for the district and legislative chair for the California School Nutrition Association.

Cold and ‘cool’

Schools in Eureka, Del Norte and Mendocino counties have taken a marketing approach, working to entice students by providing spiffy water stations that attach to the wall and dispense jets of cold water into reusable water bottles. “The latest and greatest thing that everybody wants is a hydration station,” said Tarney Sheldon, with the Ukiah-based North Coast Opportunities.

The sleek hydration stations, or at least clean water fountains, when coupled with basic information about the health and environmental benefits of drinking water, encourage students to drink more water, said Jennifer McClendon, of Network for a Healthy California, part of the state Department of Public Health. In a June survey of 1,500 students in Humboldt, Mendocino, Sonoma and Del Norte counties McClendon found that students drank more tap water, and felt more positively about tap water, in schools that had improved the way water was delivered, compared to students at schools that had made no improvements to their water delivery systems. (Complete survey data have not yet been released.)

“By updating the drinking fountains, schools are making the water cool in temperature, but also ‘cool,’” McClendon said. “They are changing the perception that drinking fountains are dirty and gross. Now they’re new and innovative.”

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