Baby carrots mockupProposed packaging for the Xtreme Baby Carrots campaignCrispin Porter + Bogusky renderingFunding for the National School Lunch Program is set to expire in less than ten days — and no sign of movement on the school lunch bill (aka the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010). Insiders are still hoping that the House will pass the Senate’s version as is and get this thing done by the end of this month. If not, Congress will have to pass some sort of temporary extension — otherwise the authority (and funding) to feed our nation’s kids will evaporate overnight.

But let’s turn our school lunch frowns upside down and accentuate the positive. In this case, it’s an extension of the baby carrot producers’ “Eat ‘em like junk food” campaign into schools. A school in Ohio has installed an “all carrot vending machine,” reports the Middletown Journal, or more precisely, an all baby-carrot vending machine. The machine was installed by Bolthouse Farms, one of the nation’s leading grower of baby carrots (which aren’t really “babies” at all, but are usually made from blemished or otherwise “rejected” carrots) and one of the farms involved with the national marketing campaign. Bolthouse also put one in a Syracuse, N.Y. school, stocked with 300 bags of baby carrots at 50 cents a bag.

Skeptics will of course tell you how this story ends — lonely veggie vending machines ignored by students spoiled by Big Food’s ad-driven, sweet and salty snacks. But, no, says the Journal:

Reaction was decidedly positive at Mason High, according to George Coates, the school’s assistant principal.

“It hadn’t been an hour after they filled the machines, that we had students coming in and purchasing baby carrots,” Coates said.

Here’s the dirty little secret that many of you childless types might not realize. When kids are hungry, they eat what’s there. If carrots are the only snack option, then that’s what they’ll eat.

And even better, in the Ohio school, teachers have incorporated the vending machine program into the curriculum by asking students to come up with competing marketing campaigns to boost carrot sales. Students getting students to eat their veggies. Nice!

The point is, reforming school food isn’t rocket science. If creative efforts are made to put healthy foods in schools and to get junk food out, kids’ diets will improve. What we’re really fighting over is money and who decides what our kids get to eat. Right now, it’s the big processed-food manufacturers and their allies on Capitol Hill who have that power, at least during school hours. Keeping junk food (oh, sorry, I mean “competitive foods“) in schools has become a de-facto way to privatize school-food costs. Schools make money on junk food so that they can afford the costs the government doesn’t pick up in providing free or low-cost lunches to kids. And Big Food loves the existing system because it hooks kids on their brands from as young an age as possible.

But let’s not pretend this is about kids’ willingness to eat fruit and veggies. The stakes are a whole lot bigger.