For schoolchildren, where’s the water?
(CNN) — When 12-year-old Mason went to lunch each day last year, he could choose between orange juice and milk, but he couldn’t get a cup of water.
Like many public schools, his doesn’t provide cups. To have free water with his lunch, Mason would have to wait in line at a water fountain shared by hundreds of other middle-school students and take a few sips of water before returning to eat.
Not surprisingly, he usually didn’t bother.
His mother, Johanna Whittlesey, like other parents across the country, assumed her child had enough water, but nutrition advocates believe schoolchildren’s access to water is a national problem the federal government has only begun to address.
Fifteen percent of kids in Mason’s age group consume adequate amounts of water, according to the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
“Since children spend a large percent of their waking hours at school, they should be consuming at least one-half their total water intake at school,” says Dr. Melina Jampolis, CNNHealth’s Diet and Fitness Expert.
“The standard recommendations are for children to get 6-8 glasses of water per day. Teenage boys need even more, 11 glasses per day,” she says. “Mild dehydration can affect learning as well as mental and physical performance.”
Change you can drink
Last year Michelle Obama continued with her “Let’s Move!” campaign to target childhood obesity, former military leaders warned that obesity could be a threat to national security and the ABC series “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” attempted to show Americans what their children are eating in school.
On the heels of those headlines, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 in December to improve school nutrition in the National School Lunch Program.
The legislation requires that clean water be easily available in school. Advocates welcome the new legislation but say it’s not clear if the new rules will go far enough to address the lack of hydration.
According to the new federal law, school districts will have to provide water in student eating areas, but the law doesn’t discuss accessibility.
Vista Middle School outside Los Angeles has approximately 1,700 students and four water fountains in the student eating area.
It’s still to be decided if a school with those numbers — 1,700 students, four water fountains and a 30-minute mealtime — satisfies the new legislation.
“As part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the USDA will be engaging in a dialogue with schools and communities as we develop a proposed rule to implement this provision of the law,” the USDA says.
Where we are now
Schools face a variety of challenges when trying to provide something — water — that Americans take for granted.
One such challenge: drinking cups.
Advocates say, and many educators admit, that too many of America’s largest school districts elect not to provide cups.
Chicago Public Schools do not. Miami-Dade County Public Schools do not. Newark Public Schools do not. Atlanta Public Schools do not. Clark County School District in Nevada does not.
Broward County Public Schools, in Fort Lauderdale, says drinking cups aren’t provided unless a student asks for one.
In the New York City Department of Education, the largest school district in the country by number of students, cups are “generally available to all students,” but spokesperson Margie Feinberg cannot say in which of its schools cups are available only upon request.
Hillsborough County school district in Tampa says it does not provide cups of water and there is usually one water fountain in student eating areas.
Educators say that providing cups can get expensive and take too much of their already dwindling school budgets.
Another issue is the water fountains themselves.
Some schools, advocates say, don’t have enough to handle the number of students. At other schools, the fountains are old, don’t work or work poorly. According to the California Food Policy Advocates, filling cups is “likely a slow process at most water fountains.”
Other barriers to student hydration include poor-tasting water and fears that municipal tap water is not safe.
Sitting down with water
“Water fountains aren’t providing adequate hydration,” says Matt Sharp, senior advocate of the California Food Policy Advocates. “When have you ever gone to a restaurant and been encouraged to go to a water fountain for a sip between bites of your meal?”
The UCLA/RAND Center for Adolescent Health Promotion, a CDC-funded prevention research program, has been test-driving a way to get children drinking more water at mealtime to help combat America’s obesity epidemic.
It’s called a water intervention — a five-week research program that includes a water filter and cups for five schools in the Los Angeles school district, provided free from the UCLA/RAND resear
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