What's Currently Required?
An array of federal, state, and local policies and regulations govern water availability in schools. Recent legislation created a federal requirement that free drinking water be available to students during school meals. Some states might also have their own policies. In September 2010, California passed legislation, SB 1413 (Leno), to require that free, fresh drinking water be available where meals are served or eaten. Massachusetts has enacted similar legislation and other cities and localities might have similar requirements.
Other local and state policies can also broadly influence access to water in school buildings, but these are generally not specific to availability during meals or in the areas where meals are served or eaten. In addition, state and local policies can govern water safety and water testing.
Because policies to require water availability with school meals are relatively recent, many schools are probably not currently in compliance. Some schools might have existing local policies or rules, perhaps stemming from local school wellness policies, that require water to be available during meals. For more on wellness policies, click here.
What follows is a summary of the current policies related to water access and availability in schools.
Nationally, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets the rules for the federally-funded National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP). In December 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which included a requirement that free drinking water be made available during school meals. No other federal regulations govern the availability of water on school campuses. In April 2011, USDA released guidance to implement this requirement. This guidance explained that schools ought to be in compliance by the 2011-2 school year. Additionally, the USDA will issue formal rules on water in schools when it initiates its rulemaking process for competitive foods sold on school campuses. This proposed rule should be published by the end of 2011 and there will be an opportunity for public comment. We will update this website when the rule is published, so please stay tuned to our site.
Currently, federal rules also govern what is sold on school campuses outside of the school meal. USDA has created a classification of so-called "Foods of Minimal Nutritional Value" (FMNV) which include a limited range of foods and drinks, such as soda water, water ices, gum, and hard candies. Schools cannot sell these FMNV during the school day. This means that vending machines, "a la carte" lines, and other sources of "competitive foods" can sell a range of sugar-sweetened beverages including sodas, sports drinks, fruit drinks with added sweeteners, as well as 100% juice and bottled water. For definitions of some of these terms, see our glossary.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act strengthens these competitive food standards, and the proposed standards will be published along with the rule on water in schools, as described above.
The state also has a role in water availability on a school campus. State policy is relevant in at least two ways: through state-level school meal regulations and through state-level requirements for school water infrastructure.
States can create stronger requirements around school meals than the federal government. For example, California has set stronger nutrition requirements on competitive school foods and beverages than is required by federal law. In California, students can no longer buy soda and most other sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) on school campus. (Sports drinks are only available in high schools.) Otherwise, vending machines can only sell 100% juice, milk, and bottled water. You can learn more about your state’s school nutrition requirements by visiting the website for the administering agency. In most states, this is the Department of Education or, in some cases, the Department of Agriculture.
For more information about California, go to: http://www.cde.ca.gov/ls/nu/sn/
States can choose to create a stronger requirement than the federal one for water availability in schools. For example, a state could choose to expand the area where water must be served or expand availability for the length of the school day. However, states cannot choose to weaken the federal requirement.
Many states also have rules governing water availability in school buildings. For example, in California, state plumbing code requires one water fountain per 150 people on school campus. However, in 1999, this ratio was also found to be inadequate by the Superintendent of Public Instruction but no action has been taken to remedy this issue. Moreover, water fountains are often in poor repair and may not be sufficient to adequately hydrate a thirsty student. To promote water consumption in schools, states can reform plumbing code to ensure greater access to water on campus.
Local action will be vital to ensuring that kids have easy access to water instead of sugary drinks at school. Given the budget problems facing all schools, it is likely that promoting access to water is not on the top of many lists. This is why local advocates will be key to successful implementation of new water requirements.
Federal law requires all schools to have a local school wellness policy. To date, these wellness policies have been implemented and enforced to varying degrees of success around the country. The federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 strengthens the wellness policy requirement by including provisions intended to ensure public input and transparency during the formulation of these policies as well as to ensure implementation and monitor compliance. USDA will publish an implementation memo on this in the Spring of 2011 and propose rules in the Fall of 2011. These changes provide a great opportunity for local advocates to re-engage with the wellness policies and wellness committees established at schools, as well as to ensure that language is included around water access and availability.
Individual schools or school districts can also take the initiative on their own to experiment with innovative ways of getting water to thirsty kids. You can work with your local school’s wellness committee, through your site council or the PTA to get things going in your own school. Check out this great resource for working with local wellness policies.
Other possibilities for local action could be working with your county government or city council. These entities might be able to help with funding or local policy changes to support water consumption.