Students compete in national culinary competition, advocate for school lunch bill

Published: Jun. 10, 2016 at 7:06 PM EDT

High school students from across the country gathered in Washington, D.C. this week, whipping up a healthy meal for a national culinary competition.

For the “Cooking Up Change” competition, students came up with a menu of savory school meals that meet USDA school nutritional standards.

"Learning these skills is something I'll be able to carry with me throughout a lifetime," said Rachel Hunter, a student at Apollo High School in Owensboro, Kentucky.

Rachel Hunter and her team have won several local cooking competitions -- but she says this is so much more than that.

"I have several friends that it's the only meal that they get and they go home hungry," Hunter said. "Mondays and Fridays they eat a lot because they know they aren't going to eat over the weekend."

The students are encouraging Congress to move forward with a bipartisan bill in the Senate. The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee approved a child nutrition reauthorization bill in January, offered by committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), to the floor for a vote.

The Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016 will provide schools two more years to reduce sodium levels in the meals they provide to students and allow them to serve at least one bread, pasta or grain product a week that is not made up of at least 51 percent whole grains.

Experts say it could greatly improve school lunch programs across the country.

"They need greater support for equipment, for infrastructure for training and for education for the students so they can really appreciate and enjoy those foods they are receiving," said Jessica Donze Black with Pew Charitable Trusts.

Jessica Donze Black says the students had to adhere to strict guidelines before serving up their meals to Congress.

"They have to incorporate whole grains, they have to incorporate fruits and vegetables," Jessica Donze Black explained. "They can't use salt as a spice, so they have to find other spices and they have to do all of that in a very small budget."

Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow helped craft the legislation, which would provide school lunch programs with additional support and flexibility.

"We worked really hard to have everyone in the Agriculture committee vote for it, and now it's before full Senate," Stabenow said.

It's now up to Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell to make the bill a priority so that it can come to a vote.

These teens are not only showing off their cooking skills, but also a first-hand look at how democracy works.

"I wish that I had more that I could say to them and more time with them, but the time that I did have, I felt like I got my message across," Hunter said.