What’s Required

An array of federal, state, and local policies and regulations govern water availability in schools. What follows is a summary of the current policies related to water access and availability in schools

The Facts

In 2010 the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act created a federal requirement that free drinking water be available to students during school meals.  In September 2010, California passed legislation, SB 1413 (Leno),to require that free, fresh drinking water be available where meals are served or eaten.  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. 

Because policies to require water availability with school meals are relatively recent, many schools are probably not currently in compliance. 

Federal Action

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 2011-12 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. 

State Action

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. 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, visit the California Department of Education

Local Action

Local action is vital to ensuring that children have easy access to water at schools. By providing drinking water as an alternative to soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages, schools can support children’s ability to learn and their health overall, and play an important role in the fight against childhood obesity. 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 and implementation of these policies.