For Healthier Kids, Just Add Water

For Healthier Kids, Just Add Water

Clear, clean, cold water. A revealing study from New York City’s public schools shows that this basic beverage can help kids lose weight and get healthier. But in too many American schools, kids go thirsty thanks to broken water fountains, bad-tasting H2O and justifiable fears about germs and toxic chemicals.

We think it’s time to take a serious look at the water crisis in America’s schools – and time for parents, schools and communities to take action. We were shocked at what our investigation turned up and think you will be, too.

Over half of U.S. kids and teens are dehydrated. Kids ages 4-8 need seven cups of water a day; preteens and older kids need at least nine to 11. Sure, some of this can come from fruit, vegetables and fluids like milk. But over 50 percent of US high school students sip three or fewer glasses of water a day – and 40 percent say they sip just one or two! Water fuels sharp thinking and emotional resiliency, helps kids’ bodies get rid of waste products and -- as that study found -- can support healthy weight. When hundreds of New York City elementary and middle schools provided water dispensers and cups, water consumption tripled and it helped kids’ weight fall to a healthier range.

Old-fashioned drinking fountains are on the endangered species list. Federal rules require access to water at breakfast and lunch and many state plumbing codes spell out the number of fountains a school must have. In theory, 87 percent of public schools meet water requirements, but… In a 2014 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers asked elementary, middle and high school students from 47 states whether they had access to drinking fountains. A whopping 42 percent said there were “just a few” or none in their school.

Plumbing that’s in less-than-adequate condition, schools that use temporary classrooms (during construction or when there’s overcrowding) and the rise of charter schools in converted non-school buildings all add to the problem. And, as a 2011 CNN report found, many schools across the nation do provide free water during meals, but it comes from one, or a handful, of fountains in the cafeteria. With no cups, few line up to take a swig.

Students steer clear. More than 90 percent of school administrators say their fountains are clean or ‘very clean’ – but the students who use them have a different view. Two out of five school-age kids and teens in a 2014 CDC survey said drinking-fountain water in their school was not clean or safe. In a 2010 California study, 70 percent of students said their school fountains looked “disgusting” and the water tasted “gross.”

Toxic turn-offs. In 2015, NBC reported that aging plumbing and fountain parts could leach lead into drinking water at Los Angeles schools attended by thousands of kids. The city planned to install filters and upgrade plumbing. And fountain spigots topped the list when researchers measured bacteria levels on fountains, water faucets, cafeteria trays, keyboards, toilet seats and kids’ hands in two Michigan elementary schools.

Access to drinking water is a basic human right. Make sure your kids and those in your community don’t miss out with these three smart strategies:

Fill a re-useable water bottle every day. Send one to school with every kid in your household.

Ask kids and administrators about the state of school water. Find out if fountains are working and whether kids use them. But don’t stop there. Ask how the fountain is cleaned and if the water bubbling from the spigot is tested for toxins such as lead.  

Suggest water jets. These large, clear water jugs keep water chilled and dispense a cupful quickly. Cost: About $1,000 per unit. Installing a couple, along with paper cups, in your school’s cafeteria could make water trendy. It worked in New York– how about your school?

Medically reviewed in July 2018.

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