Water, Coming to a Public School Near You

 Water, Coming to a Public School Near You

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SAN FRANCISCO -- It is so basic that it seems strange such a mandate exists.

But, this summer, in compliance with legislation passed under the Schwarzenegger administration, California schools will be required to “provide access to free, fresh drinking water during meal times in the food service areas.”

The legislation is grounded in a 2009 survey sponsored by the California Department of Public Health that found that, in 55 percent of California school districts surveyed, less than half of schools provided drinking water during meals, and, in 40 percent of districts, no schools provided free access to water. Current law requires only one fountain per 150 students, which can be located anywhere on school grounds.

In a column touting several education bills that he sponsored in 2010, state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, called the status quo “unacceptable given that studies show adequate water consumption by students improves cognitive function, boosts academic performance and fights obesity,” and called his bill “one small step in helping our students make healthy choices at school.”

Similar legislation signed by President Obama this December extends the requirement nationwide.

These efforts coincide with a broader ‘Let’s Move’ campaign sponsored by First Lady Michelle Obama that aims to reduce childhood obesity, and in particular targets public schools, where many kids consume at least half of their calories each day. Proponents of such legislation hope that increasing access to water will reduce consumption of sugary substitutes.

But access to water is not the only barrier to hydration in schools.

Just ask students at Mission High School in San Francisco, which already is in compliance with the legislation. Students all seem to agree on one point: tap water is “nasty.”

“It’s like pee color. I pushed the button and it was all yellow,” one girl said, who said she prefers to buy water bottles from a campus vending machine or bring drinks from home.

“Eww, it’s nasty,” another student added, saying that the faucets often had gum on them and that other students often lick the taps.

Kumar Chandran, nutrition policy advocate with the California Food Policy Advocates on Oakland, Calif, said that misperceptions about tap water is another issue that needs to be considered. While he supports Leno’s bill, he said that “just having the law alone is not sufficient to make changes,” adding that “part of it is just changing mindsets rather than the infrastructure that is in the schools.”

For their part, many school districts face large issues and don’t spend too much of their time worrying about water fountain placement, Chandran said, and that many school districts are probably not even aware of the mandate.

Jennifer LeBarre, director of nutrition services for the Oakland Unified School District, said the law was not a burden and that the district would be in compliance by July. The district plans to reallocate funding used for buying bottled water to add water fountains,coolers and hydration stations where students can fill water bottles with tap water.

But while the impact of the legislation may be limited, for some the issue is symbolic of other basic needs not met by many public schools.

To Karl Smith, a former ESL teacher at Lovonya Dejean Middle School, his school’s failure to provide clean water was a collective failure shared by students and administrators. Although it occurred more than half a decade ago, Smith still can’t forget the recurrent pee problem at the water fountain near his class.

He describes it like a crime case. The year: 2004-2005. The place: second floor hall fountain: “When I would come into my building in the morning there would be a rather pervasive smell of urine in my hall and I was able to trace this to the vicinity of the drinking fountain,” he said.

Smith said he believes the problem was limited to the base of the fountain and did not affect the tap, citing physical constraints faced by short middle school students with limited range.

For him, this experience sticks out in his mind because it illustrates an academic environment that was dysfunctional in many other ways. The school has since changed administrations, and Smith no longer works there.