Federal food rules could snag Illinois' official snack

2014-01-18T00:00:00Z Federal food rules could snag Illinois' official snackKurt Erickson Lee Springfield Bureau nwitimes.com
January 18, 2014 12:00 am  • 

SPRINGFIELD | A fat-fighting initiative by the federal government could leave Illinois schools unable to sell certain flavors of the state's official snack food.

On Wednesday, members of the Illinois State Board of Education are scheduled to discuss the details of the so-called federal "Smart Snacks" program, which will put restrictions on what kinds of goodies can be sold in schools beginning this fall.

Among the items potentially targeted in the obesity-busting initiative are cheese- and candy-flavored versions of the state snack food: Popcorn.

The changes being handed down by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are designed to replace unhealthy foods like candy bars, doughnuts and potato chips with healthier options, such as granola bars, trail mix and baked chips.

The regulations, which are set to go into effect in the 2014-15 school year, set limits for fat, salt and sugar sold in schools. The rules won't stop kids from bringing snacks from home and states have the option of approving a limited number of exemptions for fundraisers and school celebrations.

But it could mean the end of some versions of popcorn, 11 years after it was designated the state snack food.

The push to highlight popcorn was part of a project undertaken by second- and third-graders at a Joliet school in 2003. Lawmakers and then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich agreed, noting Illinois is among the top popcorn producing states in the nation.

Former state Sen. Lawrence Walsh, a Joliet Democrat who sponsored the 2003 proposal, said he hopes the guidelines don't cut too deeply into the amount of popcorn consumed by kids.

"It should be allowed. It's better than those sugary candies," said Walsh, who is now Will County executive. "You could eat a wagonload of popcorn and not have any of the detrimental effects of some of those other kinds of snacks."

According to Illinois State Board of Education documents, cheese popcorn falls in the "No" list when it comes to what's allowed. A spread sheet notes that the snack is too high in fat, saturated fat and sodium.

So-called "light popcorn," however, is promoted as a healthy snack, as long as it falls under guidelines for calories and sodium.

Roxanne Ramage, a state board of education nutrition program expert, said the rules only pertain to food sold at schools. Since popcorn is relatively cheap, schools could simply give it away and stay in compliance with the federal rule.

"There may be options for the schools," Ramage said.

Other snacks and drinks targeted in the ban include Rice Krispie treats, Pop-Tarts and multigrain chips.

The rules also affect beverage choices. On the "yes" list are water; unflavored low-fat milk; flavored or unflavored fat-free milk; soy milk; and 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice.

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