Two boys fill up a water bottle at a refill station at In Chan Kaajal Park in the Mission District on Friday, Aug. 23, 2019. The SF Unified School District is looking to place similar water bottle refill stations in schools in partnership with the SFPUC and Rec and Park. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Thirsty students can fill up at SF schools

Revenue from a tax on soda and sugary beverages approved by San Francisco voters in 2016 will soon pay for the installation of more than two dozen lead-free water bottle refilling stations at public schools.

A $805,000 allocation from the 2019-20 budget will fund the expansion of San Francisco’s Drink Tap program, which launched in 2010 with the installation of outdoor “tap stations” in parks and public areas.

The tap stations are already installed and operating at 89 San Francisco Unified School District schools. The soda tax revenue allocated this year will allow the district to place the stations at all of its school sites, including at 19 schools in low income neighborhoods and some ten early education programs that are not yet benefitting from the program.

“We are excited to have less waste, professional development and student-led activities [centered around] the stations,” said Saeeda Hafiz, SFUSD’s Wellness Policy Project Manager for School Health Programs, who added that a portion of the money will go toward project-based learning activities and training for staff on the environmental and health impacts of the tap stations and water consumption.

The first three schools scheduled to receive tap stations this fall are John Mclaren Child Development Center and Rosa Parks Elementary School and Francisco Middle School. Hafiz said that she expects all schools in the district to be equipped with tap stations by next school year.

Hafiz said that the effort to bring more tap stations to schools was born out of recommendations made by the Sugary Drinks Distributor Tax Advisory Committee, which advised Breed on how to spend the soda tax money and will help the district implement lessons for students and families encouraging water consumption.

The advisory committee came “together to really make sure” that low-income communities disproportionately impacted by diabetes receive funding for tap stations, said Hafiz.

“The committee has been key in ensuring that all of our city and community based organizations are in alignment with how this money is being rolled out and I think it’s very responsible,” she said.

The tap stations’ installation comes by way of a partnership between SFUSD, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and the Recreation and Parks Department. More than 155 stations are already in use throughout San Francisco, with 18 more currently pending installation.

This year marks the first year in which soda tax funding is being issued to Rec and Park to install drink tap stations, and the second year it is being used by SFUSD.

Of Breed’s budget allocation, $640,000 in soda tax revenue will go to SFUSD and Rec and Parks, and $165,000 will be allocated directly to the PUC to sponsor the installation of drink tap stations in other public spaces. The latter funding was advocated for by Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer during last summer’s addback process at the Board of Supervisors.

“This investment in Drink Tap infrastructure is truly an equitable investment in the health of our communities and neighborhoods,” said Fewer. “I hope that by making stations readily available and accessible we are able to promote water as the preferred and health alternative while discouraging consumption of sugary-sweetened-beverages.”

With its share of $300,000 in funding, Rec and Parks is planning to install 14 new tap stations. It is currently operating 29, according to spokesperson Tamara Aparton.

The tap stations may be used by students and members of the public to fill up their own

containers — an effort to discourse the purchase of single-use bottled water and raise awareness around conserving natural resources and reducing waste. However, the tap stations also work as regular water fountains.

“The thought was that if we do a combination of fountains with water bottle fillers, we can push people to carry reusable bottles without excluding folks who don’t have one and are thirsty,” said John Scarpulla, policy and government affairs manager with the PUC who is overseeing the drink tap program expansion.

San Francisco sources it’s tap water from the Hetch Hetchy Regional Water System, of which the regional and local sources – including reservoirs and local groundwater – are a part.

“We extensively test our water and ensure that it meets all of our standards,” said Scarpulla, who noted that tap water is also highly regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency and local water quality standards.

Each drink tap station will undergo a quality inspection before they are opened to members of the public.

Last October, lead was found in water dispensed from fountains at over half of SFUSD’s schools, causing the district to launch testing and mitigation efforts. The lead contamination was traced to aging pipes and infrastructure.

In April 2017, the district and PUC partnered to “voluntarily begin a new round of water testing in compliance with a new California state requirement,” after which elevated levels of lead exceeding the federal standard of 15 parts per billion were discovered at four schools, said SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick.

Dudnick confirmed on Friday that those schools — Downtown High School, Malcolm X Academy, SF International High School, and West Portal Elementary School — underwent additional testing and that mitigation was completed last fall.

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

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