Courtesy of Sanger Unified School DistrictA student at a Sanger Unified school stops for a drink of water. The coolers are a cheap alternative to installing water fountains.
A state law requiring school districts to provide free, fresh drinking water to students during mealtime takes effect today, but it's unclear whether it will effectively discourage kids from choosing sugary drinks.
The law allows school districts to opt out if they adopt a resolution stating they can't afford to comply.
A survey conducted in 2009 by California Project LEAN suggests that many students do not have access to free drinking water during mealtimes. More than half of the districts that responded said some of their cafeterias did not provide free water. They said in some cases, students didn't drink the free water because it was warm, there were too few fountains or the fountains didn't work properly.
At least one district has said it's not going to be able to meet the new state requirements. The Mount Diablo Unified School District passed a board resolution in June saying that unless it gets $300,000 in additional funds, 10 of its schools won't be able to comply.
A new federal law that takes effect in September requires districts to make water available to all children in the National School Lunch Program. So if Mount Diablo can't figure out a solution by then, the district will be in violation of federal law.
It's unclear what action the federal government would take against districts that aren't in compliance.
"Corrective action would depend on the situation," said Jesus Mendoza, deputy regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service. "If the district says, 'I don't want to be in compliance because I don't believe in enforcing this requirement,' fiscal action would be possible."
"That would be a very last effort for us," he added. "We want to give every school and district a fair opportunity to come into compliance first."
Gary Eberhart, president of the Mount Diablo Unified school board, said it’s expensive to install water fountains. “In all cases, it’s our belief that those kids do have access to drinking water,” he said, even if it’s not within cafeterias. The board did not discuss cheaper alternatives, such as installing temporary water coolers, and said the district will not be able to meet the federal deadline in September.
Most schools are trying to comply, said Ellen Braff-Guajardo, senior nutrition policy advocate at California Food Policy Advocates, a sponsor of the bill.
"Compliance with the law is important, of course," she said. "But there is also recognition of the health, learning and obesity prevention benefits associated with proper hydration. When SB 1413 was pending, we reminded policymakers that restaurant patrons, agricultural workers, pets and prisoners all enjoy water with their meals. Certainly, our children deserve no less."
Dominic Machi, director of child nutrition services at San Ramon Valley Unified School District and former director of child nutrition for the Newark Unified School District, began offering water before it became a new requirement. After touring the Google campus in Mountain View, he decided to start flavoring the water with different fruits.
"We added strawberries and tried kiwis – that kind of failed – but lemons and oranges were successful. The kids thought it was another added attraction," he said.
Some districts, such as the Earlimart School District, are in the process of installing water fountains at schools that are not in compliance. But many districts are working with cheaper alternatives. The Fresno Unified and Sanger Unified school districts said they’re planning to put water containers in all of their cafeterias that don't have an adequate number of fountains.
“It's not that hard to do,” said Alex Carrillo, interim co-director of child nutrition for Sanger Unified.
Not everyone is an enthusiastic supporter of free water. Some school officials have expressed concerns that free drinking water and cups could decrease revenue from bottled water sales.
"If students drink free water served at school instead of purchasing competitive beverages that fund extracurricular activities, schools may have to seek alternative fundraising strategies," according to a report published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease. The report was based on interviews with school administrators and staff, health and nutrition agency representatives, and families, primarily within the Los Angeles school system.