By Cynthia McCabe and Felix Perez

Legislation that will help ensure all students have access to healthier meals got the signature of President Obama today, marking the culmination of months of work by advocates for students, including the National Education Association

“Those of us who work in America’s public schools know that sometimes a school breakfast or lunch will be the only meal a student will get all day,” NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said. “We all know that young, eager minds need good nutrition to fully realize their promise.”

The child nutrition bill accomplishes two important goals: it provides access to more meals for the growing number of children in poverty, and it raises the nutritional standards for those meals.

On hand for the signing ceremony at Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Washington, D.C., were First Lady Michelle Obama, a staunch supporter of children’s nutrition and driving force on the Let’s Move! campaign. She was joined by Cabinet secretaries, educators, school administrators and even celebrity chef Tom Colicchio of Top Chef fame. (Read full remarks by the president and first lady.)

The Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act, which enjoyed bipartisan support, expands by 115,000 each year the number of children enrolled in the school meals program. It improves the nutritional value and quality of school breakfasts, lunches and other school foods. The law sets new food safety guidelines and, for the first time, establishes nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools. (Read more about the role of the 360,000 education support professionals who plan and prepare the nation’s school meals at Education Votes.)

To ensure schools meet the new standards, the landmark law includes training opportunities and professional standards for all Education Support Professionals who work in food services. Those professional development opportunities for these frontline school employees, a first, were proposed early this year by the National Education Association at a White House meeting with Michelle Obama and other children and education advocacy group leaders.

NEA’s proposal was accompanied by continually reaching out to the Obama administration, participating in coalitions and, most important, the letters, e-mails, phone calls and visits to Congress from NEA members and others who believe school meals are a vital part of the America’s safety net for children.

Photo: Lawrence Jackson/White House