How Houston ISD Plans to Meet the Drinking-Water-in-Cafeterias Mandate

Last week we talked about how hard it might be for some school districts to follow the new federal mandate to provide free drinking water to students during meal times (“Getting Water Into School Cafeterias:  Not As Easy As It Sounds“).  If you haven’t read the comments on that post, I encourage you to do so — many readers, including school food service worker Maggie — had lots of insights into why getting water into schools is more challenging than you might think.

Prompted by my own post, I wanted to find out how my district (Houston ISD) plans to handle the new drinking water requirement in the coming school year.  Our Senior Administrator of Food Services, Brian Giles, told me that HISD is:

currently getting quotes on 3-gallon dispensers that would be placed in the cafeteria area or serving line.  Dispensers and cups would be used in the majority of schools that don’t have drinking fountains immediately available to students in the lunchroom. . . .

A representative of Chef Ann Cooper’s Lunch Box group had told me via Facebook that in Boulder, CO they spend three cents per waxed paper cup to distribute water in schools where disposable cups are used (some schools use washable cups).  But when I did the math for HISD —  one three-cent cup for each of the 200,000 kids in HISD times 180 school days — it came to over one million dollars a year for cups!  So I went back to Brian Giles for more information, and also asked whether

in the schools with existing water fountains, is the district confident that a single fountain can meet the need of a given lunch room?  It seems like it might take a long time for hundreds of kids to get their water from one fountain in one lunch period.

Brian responded:

We spend 1.9 cents ($0.019) per Styrofoam cup.  If every student were to take a cup every day, it would cost $684,000 annually.  We also plan to purchase at least one water dispenser per campus ($20 x 300 campuses=$6,000).  That being said, I’m sure that every student will not take a cup every day.  I’m also confident that some students, because they choose water, will not choose milk ($0.27 per serving).  If we see savings from students who do not choose milk, providing water actually becomes much less expensive.  However, we won’t know until we actually see it in action.

On a recent visit to [a local elementary school], I didn’t see any logjams at the drinking fountain.  When kids were thirsty, they typically rose from their seats and took a drink.  Elementaries also have staggered lunch schedules so all classes will not be eating lunch at the same time.  If a particular campus needs an extra dispenser, we can make that decision on an as-needed basis.

I take Brian’s point about paper cups and the possible cost savings if less milk is served — I’ll be curious to see how that shakes out at the end of this year.  I didn’t ask Brian the questions raised in my prior post (and by readers) regarding some of the complications of coolers, like the need to store and properly sanitize them.  I’m going to assume that if HISD Food Services is choosing to use coolers, it can handle those issues.  But one question does remain, and that’s how water from a cooler will taste to kids.  On that issue, I’ll try to pay a visit this fall to some schools using coolers and report back.

Meanwhile, though, I’m still worried about Houston schools with water fountains in their lunch rooms.  After sending my question to Brian, I’ve actually grown less concerned that water fountains will be mobbed at lunch and more concerned that they’ll go mostly unused.

First, as discussed in my original post on this subject, the water from water fountains in many schools, particularly those with old plumbing, may be unpalatable.  When I asked my son about the water fountain in his elementary school cafeteria, he said — totally unprompted by me — “The water is HORRIBLE!  There’s mold growing in the drain!”  Even if there’s some nine-year-old-boy hyperbole going on there (and I’m sure there is), I don’t think he’s alone in thinking the water tastes bad.

Another problem is going to be student re-education about the use of water fountains at lunch, at least at the elementary school level.  In my own children’s cafeteria, kids have been told for years that they’re not allowed to get up from their table without permission.  Unless there are going to be multiple announcements (or signage) telling kids they now can freely get up to use the water fountain, many young children will simply stay put out of habit.   And absent the “visual” of a cooler or pitcher on the lunch line, will kids even think to get water with their meal, especially if another drink (flavored and plain milk) appears to be the only beverage “officially” offered?

And finally, there’s a categorical difference in my mind between having a cup of water placed next to my meal versus eating a meal with no beverage but in a room that happens to have a water fountain.   In the former case, I’m likely to drink the entire six or eight ounces in the cup.  In the latter case, I’m likely to take just a few sips of water at the end of my meal — if I even think to go get water at all.

I understand that reliance on water fountains to meet the federal mandate may be the only option for some school districts, and Houston is lucky in that we apparently do have the considerable funds for cups and coolers where needed.  But I’m coming to see that there might be as many obstacles to kids drinking water in a lunch room with a water fountain as in one where no fountain exists and other arrangements have to be made.

Do you know how your own school district is planning to meet the federal water mandate in the coming school year?  If so, I’d love to hear about it.  Feel free to leave a comment here or contact me directly (via the Contact tab above) to share what you know.


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  1. Mara says

    Another issue with kids using the water fountains in some schools, my son’s included, kids are highly discouraged from getting up to use the water fountains. They have to raise their hand and wait for a lunch room worker to give them permission to get up. Should schools encourage kids to bring a refillable water bottle that can be filled by the coolers. We also have issues with bad tasting water due to old plumbing at our schools as well.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Right! I think kids are going to sit in their seats and have no idea that now it’s OK to get water. I asked Brian about refillable bottles from home but he didn’t mention it. And the taste thing is a real problem, one that I’m sure no one wants to address since it would be expensive to replace plumbing, at a time when budgets are so tight. Maybe I’ll go around and do a water tasting tour! :-)

      • mara says

        ive heard the water at lanier tastes terrible. I know the kids say that the fountains outside (think pe class) say that the sewage backs up in it. just disgusting. I’ve never had the guts to try it. We do send water from home.

  2. Sarah says

    I also wondered if kids would be allowed to refill their own water bottles at the fountain. I know places (not schools) where this is discouraged, as it drains the water jug faster than using a 6-8 oz cup would.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Sarah: Brian didn’t answer my question about bottles but I’m guessing that kids could certainly bring them if they wanted. When you say “drains the jug” are you speaking of those coolers with clear plastic bottles on top? Because I’m talking about regular plumbed fountains, just FYI.

  3. says

    It’s great that HISD has figured out something they think will work. But beyond the context of HISD, I just have to point out one irony here (and forgive me the use of the word irony — it may be more of the Alanis Morrisette variety). There’s a huge controversy nationwide about banning chocolate milk because THEN THE KIDS WILL DRINK LESS MILK! AND THAT’S REALLY BAD! But now along comes the water mandate, and your food services guy willingly says that they’ll probably save money on milk because kids will drink water instead. So…if they’re drinking something other than milk because we SAY they can, then a drop in milk consumption is okay…but if they are drinking water instead of milk because their chocolate milk has been removed, it’s a nutritional disaster? Just wondering! 😉

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Bri — LOL! I had the exact same thought when I posted Brian’s quote but didn’t want to muddy my water post, so to speak, by bringing in the always-controversial flavored milk. :-) But, as you know, in my post taking issue with Jamie Oliver’s war on chocolate milk I talked about the concern among many parents and dietitians that milk consumption will drop if flavored milk is removed, yet in this context no one seems worried. Maybe water is regarded as a per se positive, so that even if it replaces milk, we’re glad to see kids getting the hydration they need? It’s also an alternative for kids who don’t like milk at all (flavored or otherwise) and, of course, a kid could take both milk and water with their meal. But your point is well taken.

  4. Chic Mummy says

    As an outsider (I ‘m Australian) I find this whole thing fascinating. I can’t speak for all schools here, but at the two schools my children attend it is compulsory for them to have a drink bottle (with water only) every day that can be refilled at various water fountains throughout the schools. This removes the burden on the school to have to provide cups etc since surely this should be a parental responsibility and the district can then use the $600,000+ per year on other needed facilities like upgrading the water fountains.

    • Barry says

      Now there is a great idea. Backpack, book, pencils and water bottle required by parents? I think water is necessary for children as an option during lunch as well as all over the campus. To spend $600k-$1M on cups is a waste of money. Install more fountains and filters is a one time expense rather than an on-going expense.

      • Bettina Elias Siegel says

        Barry – that does make more sense – why buy cups every year if you can upgrade faucets once and require bottles to use them.

  5. Kim says

    This all sounds well and good, but I am an HISD teacher at a high school where all 3100 students have a single lunch period. If you are going to use 3 gallon water dispensers, you are going to have to replace them multiple times during the same lunch period. Not to mention the additonal trash that the styrofoam cups will cause. Our lunch line already sells 16 oz. bottled water–I assume those that purchase bottled water may opt for the “free” water. The good thing about bottled water–students may save the bottle, recap it, and use it during the day. Not so with the cups, and I think you will waste more water this way. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Wow, Kim, I wasn’t aware that some schools didn’t have staggered lunch periods. How on earth do you all handle 3,100 kids in one period? Meanwhile, I think your points are all good ones. Please let me know how the water thing goes at your school once the year is in full swing — you can leave a comment on this post and I’ll see it, or you can reach me at bettina [at] thelunchtray [dot][com].

  6. Kim says

    Will do! The answer to your question is two-fold: 1. Off-campus lunch is allowed for certain juniors and seniors, so not all 3100 students are actually on campus; 2. All administrators on campus are on duty during lunch. The cafeteria/lunch line set-up for high school is very different from elementary school. We have a food court type set-up and also multiple carts away from the main line area that serve pizza and sandwiches. Of the three largest high school campuses in HISD, two have a single lunch period and the other has two lunch periods.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Kim – very helpful info. I’m learning all I can about the HISD food situation but just by virtue of my kids’ ages, I’m still very elementary-centric. Next year I have one in middle school, which I think will be eye-opening in terms of the a la carte food that’s available. Thanks for enlightening me! Can I ask also, do you know if your high school is one of the new “Cool Cafs” that HISD/Aramark has set up?

  7. Karen says

    What caught my eye in the interview was the “waxed paper cup” vs. styrofoam. The styrofoam estimate came in cheaper than you calculated for the paper cup – they are not the same material, and with many of our kids being “green” from the get-go, there may be some backlash from the requirement to use styrofoam cups. I know I would choose another option (washable, reusable glasses from the lunchroom a la Luby’s, where all the water glasses are filled and waiting for you at the cash register).

    My girls have an option to take their own water bottle to school, and to use the school’s fountains to refill it. Seems like HISD could do that, too, but they’d have to allow kids to take the time to refill at some point during the day.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Karen: It’s possible that the styrofoam is biodegradable, as is supposedly true for HISD styrofoam trays. I will try to find out.

  8. Barry says

    Hello, I remember my elementary school days and in that time period, each classroom had a sink for hand washing AND a drinking fountain in the back of the room. I don’t think these interrupted the classroom and allowed kids to have access to water ALL day long. To save money, schools have eliminated hand washing in classroom, even before going to lunch (instead using hand sanitizer?) and limited water fountains. Time to go back in time to refit? Won’t happen. So the next option is to install more fountains in and around the campus to reduce the back-up at lunch time. Good Day~

  9. Rhime R. De Chavez says

    thank you very much to BETTINA ELIAS SIEGEL for making this essay! You help me very much…about our science project about the common problem’s in our school!…now i know a website that we can be reported to our science teacher!

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