Serving water with school lunches could curb obesity, save billions

Increasing access to plain drinking water in school cafeterias throughout the U.S. could prevent 570,000 children from becoming overweight or obese and save $13.1 billion in medical costs and indirect societal costs, suggests a new study in Pediatric Obesity.

These estimates came from research conducted in 1,200 elementary and middle schools in New York City between 2009 and 2013. When water dispensers were placed in school cafeterias, students’ consumption of water at lunchtime tripled and was associated with small but significant declines in risk of being overweight one year later. As water consumption went up, the amount of whole milk consumption significantly dropped.

A cost-benefit analysis showed expanding this program to all elementary, middle and high schools nationwide would cost $18 for each student’s K-12 experience, with investments related to buying and maintaining the water dispensers. But the intervention would result in an incremental benefit of $192 per student—with the net benefit of $174 per individual equaling $13.1 billion when applied throughout the U.S. and over the duration of the children’s lifetimes.

The cost-benefit model assumed permanent reductions in the amount of overweight or obese adults.

“The nutrition profile doesn’t change much when people increase their plain-water intake, but we do see a significant drop in their saturated fat and sugar intake,” co-author Ruopeng An, PhD, a kinesiology and community health professor at the University of Illinois, said in a press release. “While there might potentially be some problems if children consume less whole milk, I would say those are probably minor in comparison with the costs associated with the skyrocketing rates of childhood overweight and obesity in the U.S.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, overweight children have a body mass index at or above the 85th percentile for their age. Obese children have a BMI at or above the 95th percentile.

Obese adults have annual medical costs $1,500 higher than their normal-weight peers, according to the press release.