A measure sponsored by Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory, unanimously passed the House Education K-12 Subcommittee on Tuesday. The companion bill has yet to be heard by the Senate Education Committee.
"If we do care about our children, then we need to eliminate trans fats from schools," Turner said. "Other states are doing the same thing."
Artificial trans fats, short for trans fatty acids, are partially hydrogenated vegetable oils commonly used for deep frying and baking processed cookies, cakes and crackers.
They became popular with the food industry because they lengthen shelf life and improve taste. But critics say they raise levels of bad cholesterol in the blood while reducing the good kind, contributing to clogged arteries and heart disease.
In the past year, bills to restrict or banish trans fats in restaurants or school cafeterias, or require warnings in establishments that serve foods containing them, have been introduced in at least 18 states.
At least six states - California, New Hampshire, Texas, Mississippi, Florida and Virginia - have proposed legislation similar to Turner's that would ban trans fats in public school cafeterias.
Tennessee has passed legislation recent years that requires public schools to offer healthier choices in their cafeterias and vending machines.
"My bill just takes that a step further," Turner said.
Under his legislation, schools would be prohibited from "storing, distributing, holding for service, using in preparation of any menu item, or serving foods containing artificial trans fat."
The prohibition wouldn't apply to foods that are served directly to patrons in the manufacturer's original sealed package.
School officials say they understand the need for children to eat healthy but are uncomfortable with a provision of the bill that would cost local governments $2.4 million to hire a dietitian for each school district.
"You can't argue against the health benefits of children not eating trans fats," said Stephen Smith, director of government relations for the Tennessee School Boards Association. "But we're struggling for funds as it is. Any bill that increases costs we take a very close look at."
Tennessee is third in the nation for childhood obesity and among the top five for type 2 diabetes in children, according to the American Heart Association.
Studies show that trans fats are believed to increase risk of type 2 diabetes, which is linked to diet, obesity and sedentary lifestyles.
Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen has not weighed in on Turner's legislation, but he has made fighting obesity and diabetes a top priority of his administration.
"We need to invest in keeping people healthy," Bredesen has said.
One initiative called Project Diabetes uses a recurring $22 million in grants to increase public awareness and expand existing initiatives to prevent type 2 diabetes in adults and children.