Decreasing sugar-sweetened beverage consumption is an obesity prevention strategy. Although schools are taking steps to increase offerings of healthful beverages sold in school stores and vending machines, free, safe, palatable drinking water may be lacking in schools. This study is the first to explore stakeholder perceptions regarding drinking water provision in US schools.
Consistent with prior research, a theme from this study was the concern regarding tap water safety (29
). Another finding was worry about the appeal, taste, and appearance of water from school drinking fountains. Unlike previous research that examined drinking water provision in British schools (30
), participants in this study infrequently mentioned concerns about the number of functioning fountains in schools. Although in a previous study, Irish schoolteachers perceived class disruptions (eg, water spills from reusable water bottles used in class, bathroom breaks) as primary barriers to increasing school water provision and consumption (32
), such barriers were not predominant themes in our study.
Despite perceived barriers, participants had ideas for offsetting costs, and some schools already had water programs in place. In 2008, LAUSD instituted a program to test lead levels of drinking water sources from all district schools and to eliminate lead contamination in cases where lead levels were higher than the Environmental Protection Agency's action limit. Although we focused on California, other states have also established water programs in schools. One private corporation donated drinking fountain filters to 750 Utah schools (33
). In New York City, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, in collaboration with the Department of Education, has installed water jets (large, clear plastic jugs that have a push lever for dispensing water) in some school cafeteria lunch lines (S. Baronberg, MPH, oral communication, October 2008).
Policy makers have also introduced legislation to increase the availability of clean, palatable drinking water in schools. California Assembly Bill no. 2704, legislation that sought to educate the public that beverage contracts and federal regulations do not prevent schools from offering students free tap water in cafeterias, was introduced in response to our research study's findings. Although this legislation was vetoed in 2008, introduction of this bill has opened the door for additional legislation (34
). In his veto message Governor Schwarzenegger expressed interest in working with legislators on ways to promote the availability and consumption of clean water in California schools.
Legislators in other states have also introduced measures to increase the availability of clean, palatable school drinking water. In 2006, legislation was introduced in the US Senate that requires child care facilities outside of the home to be free from lead paint and lead-contaminated tap water in 5 years (35
). In 2007, Senate legislation was introduced that mandates annual testing of school tap water, publishes tap water contamination reports, and eliminates any source of contamination (36
Our study has limitations. Although the qualitative methods we used allowed us to generate hypotheses and explore the issue of school drinking water provision in great depth and detail, our results are not meant to be generalizable. Future studies conducted with a representative sample of schools would help expand on the themes found in our study.
Program and policy implications
Our results suggest that drinking water provision in some schools may be inadequate. Schools, communities, and policy makers should collaborate to develop programs and policies to ensure that free, clean, palatable drinking water is available to students. For example, to address concerns about tap water safety, schools may consider testing drinking fountain water for lead and other contaminants and educating school staff members, students, and parents about results. To counter misperceptions that USDA regulations and beverage contracts prohibit serving free tap water in school cafeterias, state education departments and school districts can clarify the absence of such restrictions. Given their financial and material resource limitations, schools may approach the private sector for funding or supplies (eg, reusable water bottles, filters, fountains) and consider environmentally friendly approaches (eg, biodegradable or recyclable cups, tap water rather than bottled water) to increase school water provision.