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Drinking Water for Students in Schools

Provides background, health implications, policy guidance, best practices, and funding opportunities regarding the requirement for school districts to provide access to free, potable drinking water during meal times.

Overview

Federal and state rules require schools to provide access to free, potable water to all students. The federal rules apply to all kindergarten through grade 12 schools participating in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) or School Breakfast Program (SBP). During breakfast, the federal rules require that schools provide free, potable water to students when breakfast is served in the cafeteria. During lunch, the federal rules require that schools provide free, potable water during the lunch period where lunches are served. The state rules apply to all public, noncharter kindergarten through grade 12 schools, regardless of whether they participate in the NSLP or SBP. During meal times, the state rule requires schools to provide free, fresh drinking water in the food service area, including where meals are served or consumed. This web page was updated November 2019.

Background and History

Federal Law

In 2010, Congress enacted the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act which added the following language to Title 42, U.S. Code, Section 1758(a)(5): “Schools participating in the school lunch program under this Act shall make available to children free of charge, as nutritionally appropriate, potable water for consumption in the place where meals are served during meal service.”

In 2013, the United States Department of Agriculture adopted regulations which added the following language to Title 7, Code of Federal Regulations (7 CFR) Section 210.10(a)(1)(i): “Schools must make potable water available and accessible without restriction to children at no charge in the place(s) where lunches are served during the meal service.”

And added the following language to 7 CFR, Section 220.8(a)(1): “When breakfast is served in the cafeteria, schools must make potable water available and accessible without restriction to children at no charge.”

Districts participating in the NSLP or SBP must comply with these regulations and cannot opt out.

State Law

In 2010, former Governor Schwarzenegger signed SB 1413 (Leno) into law, adding the following provisions under California Education Code Section 38086:

…by July 1, 2011, a school district shall provide access to free, fresh drinking water during meal times in the food service areas of the schools..., including, but not necessarily limited to, areas where reimbursable meals under the National School Lunch Program or federal School Breakfast Program are served or consumed.

Ensuring compliance with this new law will be a district-wide responsibility. Districts may want to develop an implementation plan that includes input and participation from facility planning and maintenance, food service, parents, and school administration.

Health Implications

Overweight and obesity among children of all ages is a national epidemic, with one in three children categorized as overweight or obese. Research shows that consuming water in place of sugar-sweetened beverages and juice can help combat obesity, since such beverage substitutions result in lowered caloric intake. One school-based strategy to combat the obesity epidemic is to encourage an increase in the consumption of water. Recent research indicates that many children in the United States may not be drinking enough water. In 2009, a survey by the California Department of Public Health’s Project Leaders Encouraging Activity and Nutrition, found that approximately 40 percent of responding school districts in California reported that they did not provide access to free drinking water during school meals. In addition to the positive nutritional impact, proper hydration can also improve academic and physical performance. For more information and background on water and its health impacts, please visit the California Food Policy Advocates Water in Schools web site External link opens in new window or tab..

Lead levels in drinking water safety is and continues to be a public health concern. In California, AB 746 (Gonzalez Fletcher) was passed in 2017 requiring community water systems statewide to complete lead testing by July 1, 2019 in schools built before 2010. The community water system must report its findings to the schoolsite. If the school site’s lead level exceeds a lead level of 15 parts per billion 1) the community water system must test a water sample from the point at which the school site connects to the community water system’s supply network, 2) the local educational agency must notify the parents and guardians of the pupils attending the school site or preschool, immediately shut down all fountains and faucets where the excess lead levels may exist, and ensure that a potable source of drinking water is provided for students. Additional information is available on the California State Water Resources Control Board Lead Sampling of Drinking Water in California Schools web page External link opens in new window or tab..

Policy Guidance

Compliance

California Education Code Section 38086 states that if a school district cannot provide access to free, fresh drinking water during meal times in the food service areas, the governing board of a school district must adopt a resolution stating that it is unable to comply and demonstrating the reasons why, whether due to fiscal constraints, health, or safety concerns. The statute requires the resolution to be publicly noticed on at least two consecutive meeting agendas and approved by at least a majority of the governing board. It is the school district’s responsibility to determine how it will implement, monitor, and enforce the law, that went into effect on July 1, 2011.

Water Consumption in the School Nutrition Programs

While federal and state rules require water to be available during meal times, it cannot replace a meal component in the federally reimbursable meal program.

Release Date Issued by Subject Reference Number
September 2019
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Clarification on Milk and Water Requirements in the School Meal Programs External link opens in new window or tab.
SP 39-2019
February 2017
The California Department of Education (CDE), Nutrition Services Division (NSD)
Availability of Potable Water to Children and Allowable Costs
Management Bulletin (MB) SNP-05-2017, CACFP 02-2017
July 2012
CDE NSD
Access to Free Drinking Water—UPDATE
MB USDA-SNP-27-2012
July 2011
USDA
Water Availability During NSLP Meal Service External link opens in new window or tab.
SP 28-2011

 

Best Practices

California Project Leaders Encouraging Activity and Nutrition Water Survey (LEAN)
Best Practice Strategies for Schools to Encourage Water Consumption
Successful Implementation
Provide or Plan for Chilled/Filtered Drinking Stations
Provide Water Dispensers in the Cafeteria/Food Service Area
Maintain School Site Water Fountains
Consider Water Safety

The California Department of Education (CDE) encourages school districts to consider a proactive approach to expanding access and increasing water consumption by both students and district staff. The most important way to encourage increased water consumption is to have free, fresh drinking water readily available and accessible throughout the day. Districts will want to consider the short- and long-term facility, maintenance, cost, and environmental impacts of how they provide water to students. The following provides a brief list of best practices to encourage increased water consumption. For additional best practices, including photos and other useful tools, please visit the California Food Policy Advocates Water in Schools web site External link opens in new window or tab..

California Project LEAN Water Survey

In 2009, California Project LEAN conducted a survey of more than 200 school districts to determine the availability of drinking water in California schools. The survey revealed the following top three reasons students did not access free water at those schools where it was available:

  • The water in the fountains or dispensers is not cold.
  • Schools do not have enough water fountains for the number of students.
  • Water fountains or dispensers are poorly maintained.

Best Practice Strategies for Schools to Encourage Water Consumption

1. Marketing and advertising:

  • Design a brochure and/or poster contest with students. Post the entries around the school campus.

  • Create a flyer or email highlighting the importance of drinking water, what the district is doing to promote drinking water, and include how parents and caregivers can help support students drinking water at school by sending material home to parents.

  • Incorporate in the morning school announcements the availability and healthfulness of consuming water.

2. Provide low-cost water bottles with clip to attach to student’s backpack.

Successful Implementation

Successful implementation of the state and federal water access rules will require participation of key groups and district personnel, including, but not limited to, facility planning and maintenance, food service, parents, and school administration.

Provide or Plan for Chilled/Filtered Drinking Stations

Provide refrigerated water stations (also known as hydration stations or water jets) that dispense cold, fresh, and often filtered water that can quickly fill a cup or a reusable water bottle. These stations are typically located in the cafeteria, near school entrances, or on playgrounds, where students are most likely to be thirsty and seek water. If such stations are beyond the district’s current means, consider including these improvements in the school’s long-term school modernization plans.

Provide Water Dispensers in the Cafeteria/Food Service Area

Another alternative to installing a water station is placing large containers of chilled tap water in the cafeteria during meal times. Some schools fill large dispensers with fresh drinking water and place them in the walk-in refrigerator overnight. At lunch time, they move the water dispensers into the food service area. This encourages increased water consumption by all students, not just those who participate in the meal program.

Maintain School Site Water Fountains

Ensure that all water fountains on school grounds are operating properly and are cleaned daily. This includes verifying that there is enough water pressure in the fountain to maintain an adequate stream of potable, preferably chilled, water for drinking. Depending upon the school size, fountains alone may not be an adequate source of drinking water. In such cases, school districts will want to consider additional water sources.

If new schools are being planned in your district, work with your district facility staff to ensure that adequate water sources are located throughout the school, especially in areas where food is served and where students participate in physical education.

If your district is modernizing existing schools, work with your district facility staff early in the planning stages to identify ways to provide new drinking fountains and refurbish existing ones.

Consider Water Quality

Providing water to children is very important; however, there may be concerns about the safety of water in your community or schools. We recommend that you work with your community and local water district to address any concerns about water quality before providing tap water routinely.

AB 746 (Gonzalez Fletcher, 2017) requires community water systems statewide to complete lead testing by July 1, 2019 in schools built before 2010. The State Water Resources Control Board, in cooperation with the CDE, previously required all community water systems to test school drinking water upon request by school officials. Information is available on the California State Water Resources Control Board Lead Sampling of Drinking Water in California Schools web page External link opens in new window or tab..

 

Funding Opportunities

State funds for the construction and modernization of school facilities are available for qualifying school districts. For more information, please visit the Department of General Services, Office of Public School Construction web page External link opens in new window or tab..

The California State Water Resources Control Board Drinking Water for Schools Grant Program web page External link opens in new window or tab. offers grants to school districts to improve access to, and the quality of, drinking water in public schools.

Contacts

For more information regarding encouraging water consumption, please contact the California Department of Education (CDE) Nutrition Services Division by phone at 800-952-5609 or by email at HHFKA@cde.ca.gov.

For general advice on the planning of new construction or modernization projects, contact the CDE’s School Facilities Planning Division Field Representative assigned to your county. The list of county assignments is available at School Facilities Staff or by phone at 916-322-2470.

Questions:   Nutrition Services Division | HHFKA@cde.ca.gov | 800-952-5609
Last Reviewed: Tuesday, January 14, 2020
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