Obesity: Safe water for schools aid health, national security

OPINION: When the American Medical Association officially recognized obesity as a disease last year, it wasn’t surprising news to me. Unfortunately, we have seen this disease spread throughout California at an alarming rate. It is estimated that 40 percent of 9th graders in the state are overweight. It is also estimated that 65 percent of adolescents aged 12-17 drink at least one soda or other sugar-sweetened beverage each day. Soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages are the largest source of added sugar in the diets of both children and adults in the United States. Is there a correlation between sugary beverage consumption and obesity? You bet there is.As a retired Brigadier General and member of the national security nonprofit, Mission: Readiness, I recently had the pleasure of contributing to the release of a research report that highlights the access, awareness, and compliance challenges to providing water to students in California schools. The report, entitled “Operation: Hydration – How Providing Water in California Schools Can Help Children Become Healthier Adults,” also proposes ways to overcome these barriers.

You may be wondering what water in schools has to do with national security? It is estimated 75 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds in the United States cannot serve in the military, primarily because they are too poorly educated, are too overweight, or have a serious criminal record. Being overweight or obese is the leading medical reason why young adults cannot join the military.

The first step toward solving this national health and security issue is to ensure that every child has access to free, safe water in schools. Unfortunately, with an estimated one in four California schools not providing free, safe drinking water to students where food is served, we face a challenge that has the potential to exacerbate this critical health concern. 
The water access challenges that some schools face directly correspond with costs required to upgrade onsite plumbing infrastructure or competing priorities for limited resources. Right now, California schools have a historic opportunity to utilize resources provided by the Fair School Funding law – formally called the Local Control Funding Formula –  to help overcome these potential barriers. This law means there is now more money for all California school districts and the largest quantities go to districts with the greatest needs. In many cases, these may be the same schools that have inadequate access to water, healthy food, and opportunities for physical activity.One of the priority areas which districts are required by law to concentrate resources is “basic services,” including school infrastructure. It doesn’t get more basic than a working tap station or water fountain. So schools can and should use these new resources to address their water access issues. Where children live and go to school, shouldn’t determine whether they have access to safe, clean drinking water.

The effort to make water available in schools is only one part of the solution. It is also important to put knowledge into the hands of school officials and parents so that they are able to make tough yet responsible decisions. Change at schools will require leadership, accountability, and commitment at all levels to ensure free and clean water is provided to all students in California.

School leaders can draft and implement wellness policies to promote increased access to and awareness of free and fresh water for students while also ensuring student access to healthy food and physical activity. Schools can conduct a needs assessment to identify any issues and costs of solutions to provide access to drinking water to students throughout the school day. And parents can promote water consumption by providing reusable water bottles for their children to use at school and serving water as the drink of choice at home.

Our children’s health and the future of our national security depend on reversing the childhood obesity epidemic. Encouraging children and teens to consume water instead of sugary beverages is a smart step in the right direction.

Ed’s Note: David M. Brahms of Carlsbad is a retired brigadier general of the U.S. Marines Corps.

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