School water fountains a problem for kids trying to ‘Rethink their drink’

November 16, 2010

By Deborah Kravitz, Chairwoman
Northcoast Nutrition and Fitness Collaborative

It isn’t always easy to find a drink of water at school.

Unfortunately, this is a comment we hear a lot when we talk to children about the health benefits of drinking water instead of sugary, high-calorie drinks. Such a refrain is obviously a concern for a network of nutrition professionals, so this year we set out to learn more about the water situation in schools, how it shapes children’s drinking habits and water’s role in the fight against obesity.

We found that water sources on North Coast campuses are sometimes limited to dirty or poorly functioning drinking fountains or water that sells for as much as $1 a bottle. Kids told us the scarcity of appealing or free drinking water at school makes it difficult to follow a key message of our “ReThink Your Drink” lessons, which is to choose water over sugar-sweetened drinks.

We also found a clear need for the new law requiring California’s public schools to provide free, fresh drinking water in lunch rooms starting Jan 1. Senate Bill 1413 was authored by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger, both of whom cite improved access to drinking water as a way to help children maintain healthy weights and get the hydration they need to perform their best in the classroom.

As school districts consider how they will comply with the law by July 1, we are sharing the findings of our recently published report “Water Woes: Recommendations for Creating Healthier School Environments.” We’re taking the report into our communities and highlighting successes in local schools and suggestions for making water a more attractive drink option during the school day.

Our report focuses on the results of a convenience sample we conducted last spring. Collaborative members evaluated water fountains and other water sources on 23 low-income campuses in Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties and surveyed 175 elementary, middle and high school students at 10 schools in the same region. Here’s what we learned:

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• One-third of the 131 drinking fountains assessed were dirty or otherwise uninviting. Some were clogged with chewing tobacco, cigarette butts, wood chips, sand or litter. Some had spouts covered in mold. Some were decades old with stained or missing enamel. “If there were at least one (water source) that couldn’t be tampered with and ran chilled, filtered water, I’d be relieved,” a Del Norte High School 11th-grader told us.

• Water pressure for 25 percent of the fountains was so low they were basically unusable.

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• Schools are not required to serve water with meals, so many of them do not. They are also required to have only one drinking fountain for every 150 students and are not required to have a fountain in lunch areas.

• Seventy percent of students surveyed said their water fountains look unappealing, using descriptions like “gross” and “sick,” or said they don’t like the water. “The water tastes nasty, but I don’t have anywhere else to drink,” explained a Humboldt County sixth-grader.

• Sixty-four percent of students questioned said they bring water from home or buy it at school while nearly 40 percent said they bring a sugar-sweetened beverage or buy one during the school day.

We know that kids who regularly drink sugary beverages are establishing lifelong dietary habits and risks for obesity and related chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. More than half of the North Coast’s adolescents drink at least one soda a day, according to a 2009 study on soda consumption by UCLA, and an average of 25 percent of the region’s fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders are overweight or obese.

The statistics may seem daunting, but studies also show that drinking water throughout the day can prevent weight gain, and replacing sugar-sweetened drinks with water can help children reach a healthy weight over time. In addition, research indicates children will drink more water if they have a clean, free source of water.

Some of our schools and teachers already have taken steps to encourage water consumption. In Lake County, the Konocti Unified School District recently added bottled water to lunch menus. In Ukiah, students who earlier this year received reusable water bottles and lessons on water’s health benefits report they now drink fewer sugar-sweetened beverages. Some Fort Bragg teachers have installed water filters on classroom faucets and let students drink from personal water bottles during class. And in Calistoga, school officials are vigilant about water fountain cleanliness.

Schools in other parts of the state, including some in large, urban districts, are having successes with steps as simple as providing jugs of tap water and paper cups in lunchrooms or as ambitious as installing tamper-resistant “hydration stations” that dispense chilled water.

In addition to these approaches, we believe education and outreach, both on and off campus, are important. We recommend schools:

• Connect with businesses and community partners as possible sponsors for fundraising or infrastructure projects. This could be a strategic step because the law requiring water in lunch areas has no funding to help schools implement it, and districts can opt out of the requirement if they declare it a financial hardship.

• Update wellness policies so they better support water consumption. For example, is bottled water sold at school events priced lower than sugar-sweetened drinks?

• Use our ReThink Your Drink lessons to provide nutrition education in classrooms.

• Develop marketing campaigns to highlight how “cool” it is to drink water. Involve students in poster or advertising contests. Reward students seen drinking water on campus.

Water is essential to our health, and it’s especially important to encourage water consumption in schools, where children can learn and model good nutrition choices. We believe even small efforts to make water a more appealing, accessible drink can lead to healthier communities.

To view “Water Woes: Recommendations for Creating Healthier School Environments,” visit northcoastnutrition.org. For additional information and resources, visit waterinschools.org.
“Water Woes: Recommendations for Creating Healthier School Environments,” is funded by California Project Lean, a program of the California Department of Public Health and the Public Health Institute.

The Northcoast Nutrition and Fitness Collaborative is supported by the Network for a Healthy California – Northcoast Region, a statewide initiative encouraging low-income Californians to eat fruits and vegetables and be physically active. The Network is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, and administered by the California Department of Public Health.

The Northcoast Nutrition and Fitness Collaborative includes more than 50 nutrition and education professionals in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Lake, Humboldt and Del Norte counties. For the past two years, members have presented “ReThink Your Drink” lessons in local schools, showing children how to identify to the amounts of sugar added to sodas, sports drinks and energy drinks and teaching them about the health consequences of drinking high-calorie beverages.

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