Placing self-serve electronic water dispensers in elementary and high schools significantly increased students’ interest in water as a lunch beverage, though the number choosing milk with meals dropped slightly at first, according to a study in the American Journal of Public Health.
The dispensers, called water jets, are clear plastic jugs with levers that dispense cooled tap water. Installing water jets in some New York City schools is part of a national anti-obesity program to encourage water consumption, but the effects on water and milk intake weren’t known, researchers said. Changes in milk drinking are a potential concern because of the loss of important nutrients, they said.
The water jets were provided by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which plans eventually to install them in 140 schools.
The study, led by New York University, involved nine schools with water jets and 10 without dispensers. The dispensers were installed near cafeteria lunch lines and cups were provided. Most cafeterias had water fountains and sold bottled water. Enrollment was about 1,100 at each school.
During the 2010-11 school year, students’ use of water jets and drinking fountains and water and milk purchases were recorded during two consecutive lunch periods immediately before and three months after installation of the water jets. Water and milk choices at control schools were recorded at the same time.
About 34% of students accessed water from all three sources after the water jets were introduced. Before the jets appeared, about 10% chose water at lunch. In control schools, the number of students getting water increased about 2% during the follow-up period.
Schools with water jets saw a 7% drop in milk purchases in the first three months. Water- and milk-taking were recorded the following year at 12 of the schools and showed students still getting water at a higher rate, while they bought milk slightly more often.
Middle and high-school students were more likely to notice water jets than elementary students, surveys showed. About half of students who noticed water jets said they drank more water because of them and 85% felt it was safe to drink.
Caveat: Actual consumption of water and milk couldn’t be confirmed, researchers said. New York City schools don’t provide sugar-sweetened beverages, which might have affected the study findings.