Popcorn, peanuts, Jell-O and whoopie pies

We recently learned that Jello-O is the official state snack of Utah.

Having grown up just down the road from Jell-O’s birthplace, in Le Roy, NY, we were surprised to hear that our childhood dessert had jiggled so far west.

The proof is in the 2001 state legislation, which noted that Jell-O made its debut in 1897, a year after Utah was admitted to the Union.

The Beehive State laid claim to being the top per capita consumer of the colorful gelatin, described in the bill as being “representative of good family fun, which Utah is known for throughout the world.”

We had no idea that states had official snacks, let alone that Utah had a global reputation for hilarity.

Suspecting that there might be some lobbying and public relations campaigns behind such designations, we dug further.

Aha! Last year, Kraft Foods, maker of Jell-O, spent $2.8 million on lobbying in Washington. The Snack Food Association spent an additional $200,000.

That said, these are state rather than federal honors, and it turns out that some of the lobbying efforts occurred off the books, from unexpected quarters.

Here’s a sampling:

Illinois – Popcorn. Former Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich signed the bill in 2003, bowing to pressure from second- and third-graders at a Joliet elementary school. As far as we could determine, none of the popcorn-loving students was a registered lobbyist. (They might, however, be budding historians.)

Maine – Whoopie pies. Technically, the chocolate and cream confection is the state “treat.” It is definitely not the official state dessert, which is the blueberry pie, made with Maine blueberries. The bill became law in April 2011, despite the refusal of Gov. Paul LePage to sign it. The governor, clearly not joining in the spirit of state snackdom, said it wasn’t a priority.

South Carolina – Boiled peanuts. An amendment to the 2006 act encapsulates the ongoing battle between the pro-peanut and anti-peanut lobbies: “Boiled peanuts are the official state snack food. Nothing in this section requires or encourages any school district in this State to serve peanuts to students, especially students with food allergies.”

Texas – Tortilla chips and salsa. As in Illinois, state lawmakers succumbed to grade schoolers, who traveled to Austin to testify in support of the designation.

Not every state opts for an official snack. Some have doughnuts – beignets in Louisiana and Boston cream in Massachusetts. Others have pies – key lime in Florida, sugar cream in Indiana, apple in Vermont.

At least one state – New Mexico – has an official cookie, the biscochito, a crisp treat flavored with anise and cinnamon.

Unfortunately, the paths to such laurels often go uncharted. (We demand more state snack transparency!)

Yet in Illinois and Texas, at least, popcorn and salsa have provided young lobbyists with some valuable lessons in practical politics.

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