Childhood Obesity News has been looking at schools and the problems connected with their ability to impact the childhood obesity epidemic. Since this became a national concern, several interesting side issues have arisen, and perhaps the most shocking is the water story.

Studies have proven that when students are sufficiently hydrated, their cognitive function improves. They think better and their grades go up. Other studies have proven that access to plenty of drinking water is important to anyone struggling with food issues or obesity. Jonah Most, of New America Media, reported on how California has led the way by requiring schools to provide access to free, fresh drinking water.

What, they didn’t have this already? Most says:

The legislation is grounded in a 2009 survey sponsored by the California Department of Public Health that found that, in 55 percent of California school districts surveyed, less than half of schools provided drinking water during meals, and, in 40 percent of districts, no schools provided free access to water.

And it specifies “during meal times in the food service areas.” Children, gather round, and hear a tale from the days when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Schools used to have drinking fountains in the hallways! Maybe even one on each floor — maybe even one at each end of a long hallway! Amazing, yet true.

School administrators are reluctant to install additional drinking fountains because stories circulate among them of fountains being vandalized, and even used as urinals — behavior whose resurgence they fear. But that was in the old days. Don’t schools now have cameras monitoring every inch of the hallway? Seems like drinking fountain vandals could be easily identified and dealt with, just like any other educational system miscreants.

Current law, we are told, requires one fountain per each 150 students, which can be located anywhere on the school grounds. Numerically, that’s not so bad. Every child certainly does not need her or his own individual water source. The part about it being anywhere on the property is a bit worrisome.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 took the requirement for drinking water to the national level. It applies only to schools that participate in federal meal programs, and require only that free water be available at mealtime. Dr. Anisha Patel points out that it’s possible to go even farther, as in this example of astonishing permissiveness and generosity:

Some schools, like a school district in Mississippi, have lifted policies that restrict access to water in the classroom, allowing students to drink water throughout the day.

Dr. Patel and public health lawyer Karla Hampton recently co-authored a paper published in the American Journal of Public Health that examines some of the difficulties that school face in complying with the law, and also offers possible solutions. Their research was sponsored by Healthy Eating Research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Dr. Patel and Hampton found that almost three out of four American schools were built before 1969, so the pipes are deteriorating to the point where toxic metals are dissolved in the water. They can’t afford to fix those major infrastructure problems or even buy new drinking fountains. In schools where vending machines still dispense sugar-sweetened beverages, plain water suffers a competitive disadvantage even if it’s free.