Fountain of Sorrow, Fountain of Light

Which one do the kids get to drink from?


I remember those water fountains from childhood. At the park, the water tasted funny and was always warm. And at school, if the boys spit in the trough portion of the fountain, I could always run the water long enough to imagine that I was getting a clean drink. At one school in Los Angeles, there was a gang that “owned” the area around one water fountain, so I had to walk out of my way to sip on a hot day.

But at least we had water.

My high school in Sonoma County had great drinking fountains because it was newly constructed and adequately funded. Some kids aren’t so lucky. Jackson Browne wouldn’t mind my borrowing the name of his song above for the cause today, nor the lyrics from another of his songs: “California’s shaking like an angry child will / Who has asked for love and is unanswered still.” If California’s children are asking for water too, the impoverished ones have a right to be even angrier.

Every child deserves love and fresh, clean water to drink. While the love ingredient can’t be legislated, accessibility to clean water can. So the good news for these kids—especially those attending the poorest of California’s underfunded public schools—is that the diabetes-promoting, corn-syrup-beverage vending machines are on the way out. The bad news is that there isn’t always water around to take the place of the junk beverages.

In a recent survey of those who run school lunch programs, 40 percent of responses reported that there was no water available for students. No teaching freedom, no music and no art programs is one thing—but no water?

“There’s been a movement to get sugary drinks out of the school cafeterias, but no effort toward a replacement,” Kumar Chandran, who works at the California Food Policy Advocates in Oakland, tells me, “so we’re working on making more water available.”

According to Chandran, things are looking up. Gov. Schwarzenegger sponsored a bill that would require school districts to provide fresh water to students beginning in 2011; however, the law includes an opt-out for schools without the funds to provide the water. Of course, those schools are the ones that need the water the most, so it was fortunate that this month President Obama signed a national law that will achieve the same goal, only without an opt-out clause. This is good news for the poorer schools, where the need is greatest.

Some school districts have responded by handing out bottled water with every school lunch, although critics of bottled water, including myself, see this as only a stop-gap solution. “We’re not pushing bottled water,” said Chandran, “mostly because of environmental concerns and the fact that it’s more expensive. Distributing bottled water is not sustainable; it’s an interim solution. Tap water is clean, healthy and free, so there is no reason to be buying bottled water.”

Groups that welcome this federal legislation include the Northcoast Nutrition and Fitness Collaborative (NNFC), whose members teach “Rethink Your Drink” lessons in Northern California schools. Research conducted by the NNFC revealed that “one-third of the 131 drinking fountains randomly assessed . . . were dirty or otherwise uninviting.” Problems with these water fountains included clogging from chewing tobacco, general litter and the growth of mold. More benign yet still unappealing was the presence of peeled enamel and water pressure so low you can’t get a sip. Almost half the students surveyed by NNFC expressed a preference for a sugar-sweetened drink brought from home over a drink from a dirty water fountain.

Of course, sweetened drinks contribute to obesity. Jennifer McClendon of the Network for a Healthy California—Northcoast Region points out that the North Coast faces an obesity epidemic. “An average of 25 percent of fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders in the region are overweight,” she says, adding that water more than anything is the perfect drink.

Sure, and love is the perfect gift, if you can get it. I think clean water is an expression of love when given to those who need it: children most at risk for life-shortening diseases from sugary beverages.

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