Researchers calculated the effects of going nationwide with a program piloted in 1,200 New York City schools between 2009 and 2013.
Placing water dispensers in school cafeterias led kids to drink three times more water at lunch, which was linked to a small but significant decline in their risk of being overweight a year later.
Doing the same nationwide could prevent more than a half-million kids from becoming overweight or obese, the researchers said.
The cost of expanding the program to all public and private schools in the United States would be small—about $18 per student between kindergarten and 12th grade. Over each child’s lifetime, that would save society $174 in medical and indirect costs. Total savings: $13 billion, the researchers said.
“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,” said study author Ruopeng An. He is a professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois.
“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,” he added in a university news release.
An went on to say that the long-term savings would compare well with other large-scale strategies to prevent obesity, including taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages.