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Thirsty Students: Access to Drinking Water is Lacking in Public Schools

America's kids are dehydrated and that could be affecting their academic and physical performance.

Feeling a little parched? Next time you take a trip to your office water cooler or sip from your Sigg bottle, think about all the school children who aren't able to drink water during the school day—not even during their lunch period. The result? America's kids are dehydrated, and it could be affecting their academic and physical performance.

According to the CDC's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a mere 15 percent of middle school students consume the minimum six to eight glasses of water a day. Part of the new Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 says that clean water must be easily available on campus, but that's usually limited to a few fountains for thousands of students. Some teachers discourage consumption of water and other liquids because they don't want students asking to go to the restroom during class time. Students also often skip drinking from the fountain—lines are sometimes long, it's hard to get a good drink of water when someone's behind you hissing, "Hurry up!" and the unfiltered water might taste or smell bad.

Sometimes the kids are smart to avoid the fountain. A 2008 investigation revealed that water fountains in many of the over 800 schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the nation, were contaminated with lead due to old pipes. A CDC-funded project by the UCLA/RAND Center for Adolescent Health Promotion, recently put free gallon jugs of chilled filtered water and cups in cafeterias at five Los Angeles schools. Although researchers are still gathering the data, anecdotally the program worked. Project manager Burt Cowgill told CNN that the water is "very popular" and they've "seen students really gravitate towards the water out here and fill up their cups right before and after lunch to hydrate."

Despite the project's success, cash strapped LAUSD says they can't afford to pay "the estimated $1.8 million to $2.3 million annually" to distribute cups and filtered gallons of water district-wide. At issue is that school districts are reimbursed by the government for the cost of milk, but that doesn't happen with water. David Binkle, the deputy director of Los Angeles school district food services, says the district could afford the the program "if federal government let us offer water as part of a reimbursable meal."

Instead of paying for environmentally irresponsible disposable cups, it seems like a simpler solution would be to start building a school culture where students bring reusable bottles full of water every day. In the meantime, kids will continue to be thirsty at school.

photo (cc) via Flickr user joshme17

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