No Water In Calif. School Cafeterias? One Man Says There Should Be A Law

Finding a drinking fountain at lunch isn't so easy in some Calif. schools.
Finding a drinking fountain at lunch isn't so easy in some Calif. schools.

A survey of California schools found that 40 percent don't offer free drinking water in cafeterias. A bill on the governor's desk aims to change that. State Sen. Mark Leno is trying to do something about that,

From the lunch line to the gym, what happens at school can make a big difference in kids' weights.

And some research suggests that something as simple as giving children  access to drinking water in school -- and teaching them about its importance to health -- can reduce the risk of being overweight.

Simple. Easy. Cheap. Right? Well, not exactly, it turns out.

While it's unclear exactly how many schools across the country don't provide free drinking water in their lunchrooms, a survey of California schools found that 40 percent of those that responded didn't offer it in their cafeterias.

State Sen. Mark Leno is trying to do something about that, as the Los Angeles Times reported recently. Leno,  introduced a bill that would require schools to provide water for students where they eat lunch.

The legislation is on the governor's desk, he says. If the governor signs the bill -- and he's expected to -- it will take effect in January. We talked with Leno about the issue and his bill. Here are the highlights, edited for length and clarity.

How is it that all schools don't already providing access to water at lunch?

I think it's just a lack of recognition that hydration for students is an important issue both for their health and for school performance. Additionally, there seems to be some confusion over whether offering free water conflicts with the National School Lunch Program regulations -- or even beverage contracts. For example, if a school district contracts with a beverage provider, among the items that they're purchasing through this contract could be bottled water. There seems to be concern that if they were to offer free water at the same time they're purchasing bottled water that this might conflict with their contract. We're trying to clarify that this is not in fact the case.

How quickly will schools have to comply if the bill becomes law?

Once it's signed, it will take effect January 1, 2011. We give the school districts until July of next year to come into compliance. So there's a bit of a lead time.

Your bill doesn't provide any additional funding to schools, and they can opt out if they don’t have enough money to comply. Won't that hurt implementations?

Our schools are already underfunded, and we are the bottom of the bottom of per pupil spending here in California. The intent was not to put an unfunded mandate or an imposition on the school districts. That would be onerous. So, we know that many school districts have already started providing water to their students, and it can be done at minimal cost. For example, the Berkeley Unified School District has done so. And they do it by filling up 5-gallon containers of water and providing some cups. That's very little time commitment, and they've had very positive results.

The provision of free water in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I'm told, costs them about $1.20 per student per year. And that includes not only the 5-gallon dispensers and the cups, but also water filters and the cost of lead tests. So, that's a fairly minimal cost.

What do you hope to accomplish?

We are battling an epidemic of childhood obesity. We appreciate the first lady of the Untied States highlighting this and making this one of her main issues. And there is also the relation of childhood obesity to type 2 diabetes. And water can help children control their weight significantly. But it also has to do with their school performance. We know for a fact that dehydration is associated with impaired cognitive function and that it also can adversely affect alertness, attention and perception, memory and reasoning. So, if we want our children to succeed in school, we not only need to provide well-trained, motivated teachers and proper supplies, but we also have to make sure they get to the school room and, throughout the day, are in good health and able to perform. Water can help.

Copyright 2010 National Public Radio.

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