Water Available to Most Schoolchildren at Lunchtime

04/09/2014

Most public elementary schools made free drinking water available to their students at lunchtime in compliance with a new federal requirement, finds researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Michigan. They report additional measures are needed to improve access and encourage students to drink more water, however.

Schools participating in the National School Lunch Program had to make free drinking water available during lunchtime during the 2011-12 school year. Researchers from Bridging the Gap research project examined school compliance with this requirement as well as perceptions about drinking fountain cleanliness and water quality. Their findings are published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Water plays a key role in overall health. Yet, fewer than one-third of children and teens meet the recommended daily water intake for their age group, and one-fourth of adolescents drink less than one serving of water a day. In lieu of water, many kids drink sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), which can contribute to obesity and dental problems.

Under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture required school children to have access to free drinking water during lunchtime. Investigators found that most schools met the requirement through drinking fountains in the cafeteria, water pitchers on lunch tables, cups to use at drinking fountains, or free bottled water they provided. While most schools were in compliance with the new regulations, the study found that schools in the South were more likely to meet the requirement than schools in any other region of the United States.

“This is consistent with other nationally representative research showing that school districts in the South have made faster progress in developing nutrition-related school wellness policies, and that they have stronger policies than do districts in other regions of the US,” said Lindsey Turner, research scientist at the UIC Institute for Health Research and Policy and corresponding author of the paper.

The study also looked at potential obstacles that might prevent students from taking advantage of free drinking water. The researchers found that although most study respondents indicated that the drinking fountains in their school were “clean” or “very clean,” some students were concerned about their school's drinking fountains. Water quality also was an issue, with about one-quarter of middle and high school students attending schools where respondents indicated they were at least “a little” concerned about the quality of the drinking water.

Another issue that might prevent students from fully utilizing the free drinking water is ease of access and use of drinking fountains.

“Although many schools rely on water fountains,” explained Turner, “fountains may not be very effective at encouraging water consumption. The elementary students may need permission to get up, and if water is not available on the table with the meal, students must make a special trip and may have to wait in line to get water. So in terms of practicality, drinking fountains may not meet the need for access to water during meals.”

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reports that between 1977 and 2001, soft drink consumption increased 48% among children ages 2 to 18 years old. The rising rate of kids drinking SSBs is associated with a decrease in milk consumption. The Academy states that soft drinks “have a dilutional effect on the intakes of many essential micronutrients” and raise children’s total energy intake, which can contribute to obesity.

By making clean drinking water easily accessible to the over 30 million children participating in the National School Lunch Program, schools are taking the first steps towards decreasing the amount of SSBs children are likely to consume; however, there is still a long way to go before kids are getting their daily recommended amount of water.

“With regard to changing student behaviors, nutrition professionals are credible messengers and are likely to be well-positioned to promote water consumption through educational activities,” Turner said. “Collaboration among school staff such as administrators, nurses, teachers and other members of school wellness councils may be a particularly effective strategy to promote water consumption as part of creating a healthful school environment.”

Co-authors on the study were Nancy Hood, Natalie Colabianchi and Lloyd Johnston of the University of Michigan, and Frank Chaloupka, UIC distinguished professor of economics and director of IHRP's Health Policy Center.

The study was conducted as part of Bridging the Gap, a national research program funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that is based at the University of Illinois at Chicago's Institute for Health Research and Policy (as ImpacTeen) and at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research (as Youth Education and Society, or YES!). Bridging the Gap is dedicated to improving the understanding of how policies and environmental factors influence diet, physical activity and obesity among youth, as well as youth tobacco use.

Read Bridging the Gap's research brief (PDF) on this topic. Read the study's abstract and access the full article here

This news release was adapted from a press release by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.