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Got water? Schools scramble to provide kids most basic supply

Mark Ralston / AFP/Getty Images

A school cafeteria worker hands out fruit and drinks to school children at the Normandie Avenue Elementary School in South Central Los Angeles on Dec. 2, 2010, the same day Congress passed The Healthy Hungry-Free Kids Act.

It may not sound like much but there’s a new item on the school menu: water.

Across the country, administrators are scrambling to comply with a new federal requirement that free drinking water  be offered at lunch as part of an ongoing push to improve the health of the nation’s 49 million public school children.

The solution isn’t as simple as pointing kids toward the nearest water fountain. Just ask Brian Giles, food services senior administrator at the Houston Independent School District, the nation’s seventh-largest district, with more than 202,000 students and almost 300 campuses:

“The majority of our schools do not have drinking fountains or ready access to water in the lunchroom,” he said.

To comply, he’s spent $60,000 to buy 3.5-gallon water coolers for each school cafeteria. In the lunch line, students can choose milk or juice, or a cup for water.

“Every kid needs access to water,” he said. “It would have been nice if the feds allocated some money for it.”

The mandate comes as schools struggle with budget cuts amid growing concern with childhood hunger and obesity. In December, President Barack Obama signed The Healthy, Hunger- Free Kids Act, which includes the provision that schools make water available at no charge during lunch.

Experts say water is the ideal drink for kids already drinking too many high-calorie, sugary drinks.

Like Houston, schools in Atlanta are putting out water coolers and making cups available. Other districts have invested in costlier water stations where students can fill cups or bottles.

 “We’re looking at what is the most cost-effective, practical and environmentally –sustainable way to provide water to our students,” said Seattle Public Schools spokeswoman Teresa Wipple. For now, the district puts out pitchers and cups in the cafeterias of its 94 schools.

While bringing more water into schools is a good idea, researchers say it’s only part of the solution to combating obesity.

“It’s a step in the right direction but it’s going to take more than that,” said Lindsey Turner, a senior research specialist at the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

As the lead author of a 2010 study, Turner found almost half the nation’s public elementary school students could purchase soda, sport drinks and higher-fat milk during the 2008-2009 school year from vending machines, school stores and a la carte lines.

Getting students to drink the water is another challenge.

“We’re not seeing a lot of demand for it,” Giles said.