You can lead a child to water, but can you get him or her to drink?
As students head back to school, there’s been a lot of buzz about the new nutritional guidelines for school meals that are being implemented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). But along with healthier meals, the new guidelines also state that schools provide access to free drinking water during meal time.
Which begs the question: How do schools actually get kids to drink good old H20?
ChangeLab Solutions, California Food Policy Advocates and the University of California San Francisco recently teamed up to figure out the answer. In their report, titled “Fulfilling the Promise of Free Water in K-12 Schools,” researchers found that water isn’t easily accessible at many schools and argue that stakeholders need to do more to make it available and appealing to students.
To conduct the study, researchers interviewed administrators at 240 California schools — California passed its own regulations requiring drinking water at school— gathering information about water access on Golden State campuses. In March 2012, stakeholders convened and came up with policy and research recommendations based on the researchers’ initial findings.
All study schools offered free drinking water somewhere on campus, with drinking fountains the most common source. But one in four schools reported they didn’t offer access where meals are served, and researchers identified five barriers to implementing the new requirements: Unfamiliarity with the new rules and/or the health benefits of improving water access; concerns about cost; concerns about water safety and quality; lack of student preference for water; and water not being a priority for school administrators.
To tackle these barriers, researchers write that schools need to “change the paradigm.” They offer eight policy recommendations:
1. Schools should make water easily accessible and visible to students during meals. “At minimum, schools should provide a cup of water on every school lunch tray or at least nearby the serving line and where students eat,” researchers write.
2. Schools should eliminate single-use, individual-size bottled water and other competitive beverages, such as soft drinks and sports drinks. The presence of these beverages undermines the policy promoting free water, researchers argue.
3. Annual water-quality testing should be required, with results posted for students, parents and the community. This will help build confidence in tap water among students and their families.
4. Access to water should also be required during breakfast and for meals served during summer food service and after school programs. Free water shouldn’t be limited to lunchtime.
5. Schools should integrate an examination of water availability into their existing school accountability report cards and assessments. “Stakeholders need a baseline understanding of water access to make improvements,” researchers write.
6. Stakeholders and advocates should facilitate and support the development of good models for water delivery systems, from short-term solutions such as coolers to permanent solutions such as bottle filling dispensers. “This is the information that schools most request and need,” researchers write.
7. Policymakers and government officials should include water consumption recommendations in all nutrition guidance documents, such as the Dietary Guidelines.
8. Everyone should submit comments on relevant USDA proposed rules stemming from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, including upcoming proposals for competitive foods.
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