Vicki Hughes, the food service director at McLean County Schools in Calhoun, Ky., works hard to make meals more healthy and nutritious. Her schools have made the switch to low-fat milk and cheese; they offer more fruits, vegetables and whole grains; and they’ve cut back on sodium, fats, and cholesterol.

But Hughes knows it takes a lot more time and knowledge to prepare a healthy lunch like vegetable lasagna than it does to pop open a box of frozen chicken nuggets and throw them on a baking sheet. That’s why she and other school health advocates are supporting legislation that would allow more schools to serve “cooked-from-scratch” school meals.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which passed the Senate unanimously last week, now moves on to the House. National child nutrition programs are set to expire Sept. 30.

The bill not only expands the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Program and eliminates junk food from vending machines, it also funds training for food service workers to learn new ways to provide nutritious school meals. (Learn more about NEA’s effort to improve childhood nutrition, including NEA’s work with First Lady Michelle Obama in the Partnership for a Healthier America and her Let’s Move! program.)

“Food service professionals are a vital link to children,” says Hughes. “Healthy eating habits should be formed as early as possible, because the food you eat affects your health for a lifetime. We help children be healthier, now and in years to come.”

Kate Adamick agrees, which is why the former chef and current childhood obesity and sustainable agriculture expert created “Cook for America™,” a series of culinary boot camps where she provides culinary training for America’s school food service personnel.

Adamick says it’s a matter of life or death, and the numbers back her up.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more than a third of our nation’s children are at risk for Type 2 Diabetes, and that this is the first generation of American children in history to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents because of diet-related illness. And just this year, 133 retired military officers issued a report called, “Too Fat to Fight,” claiming that our national obesity crisis puts our nation’s national security at risk.

“We at Cook for America believe that school food is the solution, not the problem,” she says. “If we provide our food service workers, who we call ‘Lunch Teachers’, with the professional knowledge and skills to feed our children scratch-cooked, fresh, whole foods, we believe that they food service professionals will [help] build a healthier, stronger, and better educated America.”

Within the past couple of years, more and more schools have begun offering fresh fruits and vegetables, many locally grown. But processed entrees, like frozen pizza and chicken patties, still dominate many school menus. Preparing natural entrees from scratch, without added salts, sugars, and fats, takes a different set of culinary skills – skills that are increasingly important as the childhood obesity epidemic takes its toll, especially in poor communities.

In Hughes’ school district, for example, more than half of the students are on the free or reduced-price meal plan. She says the low-income kids in her community tend to be overweight because healthy food options are often more expensive than junk food. The healthiest meals these children eat are often those served at school.

With the help of knowledgeable food service professionals and classroom teachers emphasizing the importance of a nutritious diet, Hughes says more of her students will become aware of the healthier options available and transition to those options at school as well as at home.

“Children need healthy, good quality meals to be at their academic best. Highly processed foods have been designed to require the least amount of time and minimal skill to prepare in an effort to hold down costs,” says Hughes. “With additional funding we could offer more variety in fruits and vegetables, and offer training for our food service workers whose mission to provide appetizing and nutritious meals to our students.”

Photo: Chuck Kennedy/White House