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.
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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