Unfunded water mandate leaves students high and dry

Jul 9, 2011 by

By Dana Woldow

How long does it take to get a drink of water around here? For cafeteria patrons at some San Francisco public schools, the answer might be “Four years.”

As of July 1st, a new law in California requires schools to make free, fresh drinking water available to students during meal times in school food service areas. School districts that cannot comply due to budget constraints may receive a waiver. The cash-strapped San Francisco Unified School District believed that with many school cafeterias lacking both water fountains and the triple sink required by the California Retail Food Code for washing reusable water pitchers or coolers, the cost of compliance with the new law would be prohibitive. A new school facilities bond headed for the November 2011 ballot will, if passed by SF voters, provide funding for necessary plumbing upgrades, but the district’s waiver resolution states that “the SFUSD will work toward the goal of having permanent access to tap water in each cafeteria by the 2015‐2016 school year.”

That’s right – four years from now. The SFUSD seems to feel that even with bond funding, the challenges posed by getting drinking water into the food service areas of old buildings with inadequate plumbing will take four years to resolve, and they may be right. However, it appears the waiver from the state law has bought the SFUSD not a four year extension, but rather a reprieve of just six weeks.

That’s because section 203 of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, signed into law by President Obama in December 2010, also requires schools to provide free drinking water with meals. According to a memo sent in April by the US Department of Agriculture to all state directors of child nutrition programs, schools are required “to comply with this requirement as soon as possible, but not later than the beginning of School Year 2011-12.” For SFUSD, that means August 15th 2011 is the date by which the school district will be expected to have free drinking water available to all students at mealtimes.

What are the odds that anyone will notice if some SF cafeterias don’t have water available for thirsty students as required? Probably about 100%, because, as luck would have it, the California Department of Education will be conducting a review of the SFUSD school meals program beginning this fall. This Coordinated Review Effort, or CRE, is a mandatory state inspection required by the USDA of every federal school meal program at least every 5 years, to ensure that, among other things, free and reduced price meals are being provided in accordance with USDA regulations. Those regulations now include the mandatory free drinking water requirement.

When the SFUSD meal program had its last CRE a few years ago, there were enough issues identified that the state withheld all government meal reimbursement, about $11 million, for close to a year, until the violations were corrected and the program was able to pass a follow up review. It seems unlikely that the diligent state monitors who have in the past busted the SFUSD because some teachers held lunch cards for their Kindergarten students (student are required to hold their own card) will be willing to overlook violations of the new federal water requirement.

And really, why should they? It has been well established that proper hydration is necessary for good health; a report by California Food Policy Advocates on improving water consumption in schools cites research demonstrating that “dehydration is associated with impaired cognitive function” and “dehydration can adversely affect memory, reasoning, hand‐eye coordination, concentration, alertness, attention, perception, and language skills.” In short, is it reasonable to expect students to be at their best for learning if they are thirsty?

Four years seems like an awfully long time for students to have to wait to quench that thirst. On the other hand, when Congress passed the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, they included a mere 6 cent increase to pay for mandated improvements to school meals which the USDA estimated would cost 64 cents. Do these same budgeting geniuses really expect that financially dehydrated school districts will just use a divining rod to locate the money for prompt installation of water stations in all cafeterias?

With the Center on Education Policy reporting that 84% of school districts across the country face budget cuts for the upcoming school year, and a survey done by California Project LEAN in 2009 showing that 40% of responding school districts had no access to free drinking water in their cafeterias at all, SFUSD is hardly likely to be alone in failing to meet the federal deadline. Until the federal government turns on the tap to fund its mandate to the schools, lots of kids are likely to be left high and dry.

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org.

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