By Jennifer Bonnett
News-Sentinel Staff Writer Lodi News-Sentinel
In what some feel is just another requirement of schools when money is tight and resources are dwindling, beginning this week, administrators must begin providing free fresh water with lunch.
"It's just another unfunded mandate they are passing down," said Doug Barge, Lodi Unified School District's interim chief business official
Warren Sun, Lodi Unified's director of food services, said it is not yet clear how much the new requirement will cost.
Currently, students receive a free eight-ounce carton of milk or four-ounce juice with their meals, but the recently passed law changes what will be available.
A bill written by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, imposes no penalty for noncompliance by the July 2011 deadline and offers no state funding for schools to install modern "hydration stations." Districts can opt out of the new regulations if they can prove it's a financial hardship.
Hydration stations can range from $2,500 dispensers with internal coolers, akin to what is found in fast food restaurants, to inexpensive plastic pitchers and paper cups.
State Assemblywoman Alyson Huber voted in favor of the legislation in August. It passed the Assembly 52-22.
Lodi Unified trustee Ron Heberle isn't surprised by the state approving another mandate without funding to meet it.
"Pass a law, pass some money down," he said, adding that any public agency that decides not to comply even when there's no monetary penalty” faces public scrutiny.
To comply with the new law, Sun said the district may temporarily place water containers and cups on tables.
Some schools, however, have drinking fountains inside the cafeteria. Sun said the language of the law is not very clear whether the availability of drinking water must be inside or outside of the cafeteria.
While it's unknown exactly how many schools across the country don't provide free drinking water in their lunchrooms, a survey by California Food Policy Advocates of the state's schools found that 40 percent of those that responded didn't offer it in their cafeterias.
Backers of the bill say promoting water as a healthy alternative to sodas and sugar-laden energy drinks will help combat obesity and help students maintain focus in class.
Sun said it is always good for students to drink plenty of water during their school day activities.
Some school districts had already begun to put the changes into place before they were mandated.
The Berkeley Unified School District, for example, fills up 5-gallon containers of water and provides cups. The Los Angeles Unified School District goes one step further and uses water filters and conducts tests for lead, which costs about $1.20 per student per year, according to Leno.