Clean Water in Schools Crucial to Coachella Valley Students

Maricruz Cabrera
June 29, 2011

Editor’s Note:New America Media reported on legislation that requires all California public schools to offer clean and free drinking water to their students in areas where meals are served, by July 1, 2011. The following commentary, written by a student at Coachella Valley High School in Thermal, California, explains why the legislation is of particular importance for the communities of the Eastern Coachella Valley.

On Monday morning, I grab an 8-ounce carton of chocolate milk from the school cafeteria, unaware that I am about to ingest 23 grams of sugar. During lunch, that same day, my urge for a cold drink prompts me to buy a Powerade, inadvertently consuming an extra 34 grams of sugar. By the end of my school day at Coachella Valley High School I will have consumed approximately 57 grams of sugar, from beverages alone.

At Coachella Valley High, we don’t have many choices when it comes to what we drink. It’s either drink what is free, or buy your own. Free or reduced-price school lunch programs, although not available to all students, offer drinks that contain high sugar quantities, ranging from 13 to 23 grams. School water fountains are of course free, but they are also visibly unappealing. The third option is to buy your own beverage. Many students do just that, buying sweetened drinks like Powerade or choosing from a variety of sugary Minute Maid drinks from the school vending machine.

Bottled water, which costs one dollar, is far less popular among students here. Why should we buy what we can have for free? We can easily walk to the nearest school water fountain and have a drink. But the truth is that we change our mind at the first sight of the clogged, scum-infested fountain. So instead of buying a bottle of water, we opt to pay the extra 25 cents for a colorfully packaged Powerade.

Although not every student buys sweetened beverages daily, I can safely bet that most don’t get their “8 cups of water a day” that is suggested by health professionals.

According to the National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse (NDIC), about 215,000 people in the U.S. aged 20 years or younger had diabetes in 2010. Providing students with free, clean drinking water at school would decrease the amount of sugar young people ingest, thereby reducing the risk of obesity and decreasing their chance of being diagnosed with diabetes.

In the Coachella Valley, diabetes prevention is something to be especially informed about. The vast majority of our residents are Hispanic, a group that has a higher rate of diagnosed diabetes than other ethnic group in the nation.

Free water at school can also prevent dehydration. This is especially vital in the desert communities of the Coachella Valley, where summertime temperatures regularly hit triple digits.

Raymond Bondad, 30, a student at College of the Desert, recently moved to the Coachella Valley after finishing a military tour in the Middle East. He said the heat in this valley is just as intense as anything he experienced in the military.

“Having served in the U.S. Army, I’ve learned a great lesson on how important it is to drink water, especially in extreme environments such as a desert,” said Bondad. “Whether hot or cold, water is essential to desert living and for public schools out here in the desert. Personally, when I tasted the water from a fountain at Saul Martinez Elementary School (in Mecca, Calif.), I was looking for the nearest soda dispenser to wash away the nasty taste.”

Access to water at school also takes on added importance here, because in many of the unincorporated communities on the east side of the Coachella Valley, students have no access to clean drinking water at home. Arsenic levels in the groundwater used by mobile home park residents in Thermal repeatedly test high.

So for children living in these communities, food and water provided at school is often their primary source of nutrition.

“Accessibility to water is not only important because of temperatures in the valley, but for a healthy lifestyle in general,” said Noely Resendiz, also a student at Coachella Valley High School in Thermal, California. “If students drink more water instead of unhealthy, sugary drinks, diseases and other medical complications could decrease.”

More water and less soda at school also makes a lot of sense from a learning perspective. “The availability of fresh drinking water would be an investment in the future, by improving academic performance currently compromised by poor hydration,“ said Aurora Saldivar, who lives in Thermal and attends Xavier College Preparatory High School in Palm Desert.

The improvement of water access at schools could also be turned into an opportunity to educate students and the entire community about their health, and the simple change they can make in their own lives simply by drinking more water daily.

So isn’t it the school’s responsibility then, to provide students with plenty of clean, safe and most importantly, free drinking water?

Maricruz Cabrera is a youth writer for Coachella Unincorporated, a hyper-local community news project of New America Media serving the Eastern Coachella Valley. The project, which exists to shine a light on community health issues in the region, is being supported through a grant from The California Endowment.

This article was originally published on New America Media. It is reprinted here with permission.