It seems so simple, right? A thirsty kid just wants a drink of water with his or her school lunch. We know that hydration is essential to keeping children alert for academic learning, and for those who oppose flavored milk in school lunch rooms, the presence of freely available water seems all the more important since it gives kids an alternative to a sugared beverage.
So how hard can it be to get water into a school cafeteria?
Well, in some cases, really hard. This recent article by San Francisco school food reformer Dana Woldow describes the struggles of some districts in California to meet not just the new federal mandate to have drinking water available, but also a California state law requiring the same thing. Some of those districts have asked for a waiver under the state law giving them an extra four years to figure out how to do it.
It sounds crazy, but when you really think about it, providing water to hundreds of kids each day can be a real logistical and financial challenge.
How is a cash-strapped district going to pay for the thousands and thousands of disposable cups that need to sit near pitchers or coolers, if a school chooses that method to distribute water? And how are the pitchers or coolers going to be properly cleaned if a stripped down school kitchen lacks adequate washing facilities? Or if a school instead decides to let kids fill up their own cups bottles, who is going to pay for the installation of a new faucet in the lunch room?
Existing water fountains can help, but in many schools they’re avoided by kids (and adults) because the water just plain tastes bad. And it’s probably not their imaginations since, according to this Public Health Law and Policy fact sheet, “[a] majority of U.S. schools were built before 1969, and many are in need of significant infrastructure repairs for old plumbing or fixtures.” In some areas, there are also real concerns about the safety of municipal water supplies. This PHLP report suggests that schools have their water tested for environmental toxins and install filtration devices but, again, where are the funds for this expenditure coming from? Moreover, water fountains are not always located where school meals are served.
The bottom line is that the federal government wants to see freely available drinking water in school lunch rooms at the start of this school year, a laudable goal that almost everyone wholeheartedly supports. But it remains to be seen how many districts will actually be able to meet that deadline. I’ll keep you posted here.
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