New University of California and Stanford study reveals lack in California school district wellness policies

Jul 12, 2021

University of California researchers from multiple locations–Berkeley, Irvine, San Francisco, and the Nutrition Policy Institute (NPI)–collaborated with researchers at Stanford University to investigate language concerning drinking water in school district wellness policies in a random sample of 240 California public schools. The U.S. Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 requires potable water to be made available at no charge to students in school cafeterias, and also requires school wellness policies that support nutrition standards. Because the strength and comprehensiveness of wellness policy are shown to be key to policy implementation, the research team aimed to learn what type of language was in use and whether that language related to actual school drinking water provision. Researchers found that the strength–scored on a scale of zero to 100–of water language in school wellness policies scored low, 11, while comprehensiveness scored 29. The findings, published online in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, present scores for about two dozen descriptors of water access. School wellness policy language scored highest for descriptors with an associated codified law–for example, the mandate for water access in the cafeteria–and lowest for descriptors of staff and student behaviors that foster water consumption–for example, allowing students to carry refillable water bottles, or requiring staff to drink healthy beverages when in front of students. Researchers found the strength and comprehensiveness of wellness policy water language to be negatively associated with actual school drinking water practices. However, this analysis was limited by the narrow range of the strength and comprehensiveness scores, making it hard to draw conclusions about this association. Steps to improve the usefulness of drinking water school wellness policies moving forward include stronger language concerning drinking water in model policy, such as the California School Boards Association model wellness policy language–used by 86% of study schools–and other supports for wellness policy implementation, including identifying a school “champion,” which was shown to be effective in a previous study conducted by researchers at NPI and Stanford. The school wellness policy study was conducted by Priyanka Sharma of UC Irvine, Gala Moreno and Anisha Patel of Stanford University and UC San Francisco, Emily Altman of UC Berkeley, Karla Hampton, JD, and Christina Hecht of NPI. The study was funded by a grant from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Healthy Eating Research.