SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Whole and processed foods continue to battle it out in a new fight over school snacks. Nearly half of all states have formally rejected federal Smart Snack standards as too strict. And there are some surprising options that are still available in school vending machines. Our pal Monica Eng at member station WBEZ in Chicago has the story.
MONICA ENG, BYLINE: It's a blustery afternoon outside of Chicago's Whitney Young High School, where the strict new Smart Snack standards regulate what's sold in vending machines. The rules have riled up legislators across the nation who think that they make it too hard for schools to raise money. So you may be surprised to find that some of the most popular items still sold are tweaked Pop-Tarts and Flamin' Hot Cheetos.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEWING)
CASHARI NORWOOD: They're good. Like, they just taste delicious.
ENG: Cashari Norwood is a junior at Whitney Young High School.
NORWOOD: And, like, I'm a vegetarian so, like, sometimes I want to just eat something that's good, and I can't even really get that here.
ENG: Still, these aren't just any Flamin' Hot Cheetos. They're a reformulated version with less fat, less salt and more whole grains. But is that really what the scientists at the Institute of Medicine had in mind when they wrote the recommendations that would become the Smart Snack rules?
VIRGINIA STALLINGS: Well, probably not.
ENG: Virginia Stallings is a professor of pediatrics at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She chaired the committee that helped make the federal rules.
STALLINGS: I thought the top sellers might be things that had more nutrients in them than Flamin' Hot Cheetos. But let me say one of the things we were absolutely expecting and appreciate was that the food companies would look at these recommendations and they would, in fact, reformulate their products.
ENG: New York University professor Marion Nestle isn't surprised. She thinks that the rules almost guarantee that you'll end up with processed foods that simply meet certain nutrient targets.
MARION NESTLE: If you set up nutrition standards, the food industry can do anything to meet those standards. So this is a better-for-you junk food. And, of course, the question is, is that a good choice? No, of course it's not.
ENG: When asked to discuss the issue, Cheeto maker Frito-Lay wouldn't grant an interview. Instead, the company wrote, quote, "we offer a variety of Smart Snack-compliant products in schools and portion-controlled sizes to suit a variety of tastes, including Reduced Fat, Whole Grain Rich Flamin' Hot Cheetos. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program, said it couldn't comment on the wisdom of Cheeto sales, but that its new standards have already, quote, "helped kids across the country eat healthier." Still, it's not kids who are drawn to the freakishly orange snacks. For cash-strapped school administrators, Cheetos can deliver a lot of green. In Chicago, schools get a 20 percent commission on all sales, so why not stock this teenage favorite?
ROCHELLE DAVIS: Because schools have an obligation to teach children how to be successful adults.
ENG: Rochelle Davis is executive director of Chicago's Healthy Schools Campaign.
DAVIS: And learning about how to be healthy is a critical part of that.
ENG: Whitney Young High School junior Paloma Ruiz thinks it would be pointless to take them out of the machines.
PALOMA RUIZ: 'Cause it's really up to, like, the kids. You can't really control, like, what they eat 'cause they - at Whitney, you can still go out for food, so if they didn't sell it at school, they could still go outside of school and get it.
ENG: Still, Stallings says she sees the rules as an incremental step toward snacks that may one day feature more fruits, nuts and whole grains. But in a nation that can't even agree on this step, the Cheetos may remain a staple of the high school experience for some time to come. For NPR News, I'm Monica Eng in Chicago.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOT CHEETOS & TAKIS")
Y.N.RICHKIDS: (Rapping) Got my fingers stained red, and I cannot get them off me. You can catch me and my crew eating Hot Cheetos and Takis. Snack, snack, snack, crunch. Snack, snack, snack, munch. Hot Cheetos and Takis. Hot Cheetos and Takis.