This is an important year for food in schools and the impact of decisions about childhood nutrition and obesity in America.

That’s because actions on state and federal levels in three areas will have a profound effect on what Deborah Kane, national director of the USDA Farm to School program, thinks could become one of the most important classrooms for every child in every school in America, the cafeteria.

In February, bipartisan supporters in the House and Senate introduced the Farm to School Act of 2015 into Congress. The act seeks to build on the success of the USDA Farm to School Program in several key ways: by increasing annual mandatory grant funding from $5 million to $15 million and by expanding the program’s scope to include meals served during the summer when school is out and to children aged 0-5 in preschool settings. The act also includes an emphasis on serving traditional foods in tribal schools. Grants under the existing program have been distributed since 2011.

In March, the USDA began conducting its second Farm to School Census. The census will provide updates on how many school districts purchase locally produced food for school meal programs and conduct Farm to School activities. Look for the results in October as part of Farm to School Month.

In September, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 expires and is up for renewal. The act authorizes all of the federal child nutrition programs, including the School Breakfast and National School Lunch programs. These programs provide funding to ensure that low-income children have access to healthy and nutritious foods in public schools. Congress reviews these programs through a reauthorization process, so you may see the act called the Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization (CNR) in news reports.

These programs are important because, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity now affects 17 percent of all children and adolescents in the United States — a number that has not changed significantly since 2003-2004 and is triple the rate from just one generation ago. However, CDC also reports that obesity among children aged 2 to 5 years decreased significantly from 13.9 percent in 2003-2004 to 8.4 percent in 2011-2012.

Starting small

Deborah KaneThis preschool age group is a priority for Kane, right, the keynote speaker at a recent Georgia Organics conference in Athens, Ga. who danced her way to the podium to the pounding beat of a recording of Katy Perry belting out, "Hear me roar!"

“The big thing for me is how to take the good work we’ve been doing in K-12 and apply it to preschools,” she said in an interview after giving a rousing speech to an enthusiastic audience of school teachers, administrators and cafeteria workers and a large contingent of FoodCorps service workers.

The idea, she said, is for USDA to build on the success of K-12 initiatives such as the school lunch program and apply that good work to other assistance programs such as preschool. The K-12 work, she pointed out, is “turning school cafeterias into the launching pad of children’s lives.

“The changes brought about by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 marked the first time in 30 years that that school nutrition standards were improved,” she said.

“The changes brought about by the act presented a fundamental improvement in school meal standards across the board. Every program. More fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, less sodium, less saturated fats, a calorie count based on the appropriate number of calories for the appropriate age group.”

Changes in the cafeteria

All of these changes, says Kane, were the result of USDA following recommendations from the Institute of Medicine and a lot of evidence-based research about what needed to change in the school lunch environment.

“Farm to School,” she noted, “is one of the best tools that we have in our tool box to make sure that kids are going to be receptive to healthy school lunches.” She cited several reasons for the value of Farm to School, a multi-faceted ground-up program in the truest sense because it is based on local farms growing food served in area cafeterias.

“On the cafeteria side of the equation when schools are bringing in local foods, they can then market their meals as something special. They’re not just serving broccoli, they’re serving Farmer Bob’s broccoli. It’s just simple marketing and promotion. It’s what the restaurants do all of the time.”

The food education side of the house is a different matter. ”It’s fine to say Farmer Bob’s broccoli, but what if a child has never seen broccoli?” Kane asked rhetorically. The danger in that, she said, is if the cafeteria line is really moving fast and a child is in a hurry to sit with a best friend or get to recess and they have a food on their plate such as broccoli that they aren’t familiar with, then the food could end up in the trash can.

“One of the mantras we use in Farm to School is that we’re trying to create healthy kids, not healthy trash cans,” Kane said. “If you put all of these healthy foods on the menu but they just end up in the trash can, then we didn’t achieve our goals.”

Farm to School helps create healthy children rather than healthy trash cans because it takes children to farms, introduces farmers to schools and brings children outdoors to school gardens where they grow their own food.

“There are so many stories about these precious babies who say to you ‘I’ve never had a strawberry’ or you see the shock on their faces when they see a purple carrot they’ve grown. Getting kids into the garden and then getting them to see those foods in the cafeterias is a way to get the children to be receptive to the changes they see in the cafeteria and keep healthy foods out of the trash cans.

“The good news is that there is nothing not to love about it,” she said.

Kane has a message for parents that she hopes will excite them, too. “I would like parents to understand that we are in the midst of change but we are not at the end yet. We have not arrived. The best thing that they can do to support school lunch reform is to send their kid to school to eat lunch because lunch is fantastic.”

Related on MNN:

Why 2015 is a big year for child nutrition
The new Farm to School Act and the proposed renewal of federal child nutrition programs should make this an important time for kids and healthy eating.