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Most Schools Meeting Water Mandate, But There’s Work Left to Do


The majority of schools are meeting a U.S. Department of Agriculture requirement that they provide access to free drinking water during lunchtime, a new study shows. But the study also finds that more must be done to encourage students to actually drink more water.

Nutritional guidelines implemented by the USDA at the start of the 2011-12 school year mandated that all schools participating in the National School Lunch Program must provide free drinking water at lunch. Researchers from the University of Michigan and University of Illinois at Chicago found that most schools are in fact complying with the guidelines by offering students free water via drinking fountains in the cafeteria, water pitchers on lunch tables, cups to use at drinking fountains or free bottled water.

Data for the study was collected with mail-back surveys of national representative samples of U.S. public elementary, middle and high schools from 2009-2010 to 2011-12. The data showed that 86.4 percent of elementary schools, 87.4 percent of middle schools and 89.4 of high schools reported that they had met the drinking water requirement.

But while most schools are serving up the water, it has been tougher to get students to actually drink it, the researchers found. One observational study in California found that just 4 percent of students drank free drinking water at lunch, for example.

Part of the reason is that some students worry about drinking fountain cleanliness and water quality — one-quarter of middle and high school students surveyed in the study reported that they were at least “a little” concerned about water quality.

Water fountains themselves also are often discouraging for students to use, according to researchers.

“The elementary students may need permission to get up, and if water is not available on the table with the meal, students must make a special trip and may have to wait in line to get water,” said study author Dr. Lindsey Turner, a research scientist at the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “So in terms of practicality, drinking fountains may not meet the need for access to water during meals.”

What is clear is that most children and teenagers need to drink more water. Fewer than one-third of kids and teens consume the recommended daily water intake for their age group, and one-fourth drink less than one serving of water a day. Meanwhile, soft drink consumption among young people increased 48 percent between 1977 and 2001, the researchers note, leading to a range of health issues such as obesity and dental problems.

Schools can play a big role in addressing the problem and helping young people drink more water, Turner notes.

“With regard to changing student behaviors, nutrition professionals are credible messengers and are likely to be well-positioned to promote water consumption through educational activities,” she says. “Collaboration among school staff such as administrators, nurses, teachers and other members of school wellness councils may be a particularly effective strategy to promote water consumption as part of creating a healthful school environment.”

Click here to read the full study, titled “Availability of Drinking Water in US Public School Cafeterias” and published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.