STUDY: Youth access to drinking water in schools may be limited

An HPRC study found that many Massachusetts middle and high schools did not meet state or federal policies for minimum student drinking water access.

Access to safe, clean drinking water is essential for health, yet research has found that over half of all children and adolescents in the US are not adequately hydrated at any given time.  A recent study from the HPRC may have found one reason: many schools are not meeting minimum standards for drinking water access.

Since most American youth spend much of their time in school, adequate access to drinking water in these settings is crucial. At the federal level, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA) requires that schools participating in the National School Lunch Program provide free drinking water to students during lunchtime. Individual states also set plumbing codes determining the minimum number of water sources per a given number of students. Additionally, water access can be addressed in district-level wellness policies, though few policies in Massachusetts have been found to do so.

To document what water access currently looked like in schools, and to see if state and federal drinking water policies were being met, researchers visited 59 middle and high schools in Massachusetts during spring 2012, documenting the type, location, and working condition of all water access points in each school. In 48 of the schools, food service directors also completed surveys reporting water access in cafeterias for comparison.

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Interview with Erica Kenney about the study

Researchers found that, in many schools, access to clean, functioning, free drinking water sources was limited and compliance with state and federal policies to establish free drinking water access was low. Less than half of the schools (46%) met the federal HHFKA requirement for free water access during lunch.  Additionally, 18 schools (31%) provided only bottled water for purchase, and in 14 schools (24%) there was no water in the cafeteria—free or otherwise. Furthermore, only 59 percent of schools met the 2012 Massachusetts state plumbing code of one plumbed drinking water source per 75 students. Researchers also found that school food service directors overestimated cafeteria water access, reporting that 98 percent of schools had free mealtime water access, while direct observations in the cafeteria suggested this was the case in less than 50 percent of schools.

“Our study found that when a student in a Massachusetts school is thirsty, he or she may have trouble finding a place to get a drink of water, especially without having to pay for it,” said lead author Erica Kenney, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “We have federal and state policies that are designed to guarantee free, safe drinking water access, but many schools that we visited struggled to meet these policies. Schools may need help with strategizing how to provide safe, clean, appealing drinking water to students at a level of access that allows kids to stay healthy and hydrated.”

The study authors suggest that additional training and technical assistance for school personnel may be needed to improve access to drinking water and improve compliance with policies, and that drinking water access in other U.S. schools should be assessed using objective measures—a strategy that could be integrated into routine school food service monitoring protocols. The paper also highlights school districts around the country that are testing innovative methods to increase access in an effort to raise student water intake, such as New York City public schools’ placement of a chilled water dispenser in school lunch lines.


Kenny EL, Gortmaker SL, Cohen JFW, Rimm EB, Cradock AL. Limited School Drinking Water Access for Youth. J Adolesc Health. 2016.

Resources from the HPRC for promoting water consumption and reducing access to unhealthy beverages.