The USDA mandate requiring all schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program to make free drinking water accessible to all students is now in effect. A research team hailing from the University of Michigan and the University of Illinois at Chicago recently conducted a follow up study assessing compliance with this newly implemented requirement together with general perceptions regarding water quality and drinking fountain hygiene. They found that while most schools provided access to drinking water to meet the new USDA requirement, there is room for improvement both in terms of providing better access to drinking water, and promoting water consumption amongst students.
Water consumption improves general health and well being. Yet, less than 33% of children and teenagers drink the recommended daily water quota for their age category, and 25% of adolescents consuming less than one glass of water per day. Many children quench their thirst with sugary beverages rather than water, which can lead to dental problems and obesity.
The study, which was recently published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, found that most schools provided access to drinking water via drinking fountains placed in school cafeterias, and in some cases, cups for easily accessing water from drinking fountains; by providing students with free bottled water; or by placing water pitchers on dining tables. While compliance was good overall, the researchers found that schools in Southern states were most likely to meet the new requirements compared to other states in the US.
According to Dr Lindsey Turner, a Research Scientist at the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and co-author of the paper: “This is consistent with other nationally-representative research showing that school districts in the South have made faster progress in developing nutrition-related school wellness policies, and that they have stronger policies than do districts in other regions of the US.”
The researchers also examined potential hurdles that may reduce the likelihood of students taking advantage of the free drinking water on offer. They found that while most students surveyed indicated that their school's drinking fountains were 'clean' or 'very clean', there was still concern in terms of drinking fountain hygiene and/or water quality – roughly 25% of students attending middle- and high schools were concerned about drinking water quality.
In some cases, while free drinking water may be provided, it may not be easily accessible to all students, which could be another hurdle that may prevent students from consuming the free drinking water on offer.
“Although many schools rely on water fountains,” explains Dr. Turner, “fountains may not be very effective at encouraging water consumption. 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. So in terms of practicality, drinking fountains may not meet the need for access to water during meals.”
If your child does not have access to free drinking water at school, or if you are concerned about drinking water quality or the cleanliness of drinking fountains, you could opt for a portable filter water bottle, which can be filled at home and topped up at school. The sport berkey has a filter element that will remove any contaminants from the water, ensuring that it is safe and healthy for your child to drink.
Nancy Hood, Lindsey Turner, Natalie Colabianchi, Frank Chaloupka, & Lloyd Johnston. Availability of Drinking Water in US Public School Cafeterias. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, April 2014 DOI: 10.1016/j.jand.2014.02.001