National Popcorn Day: All About the Illinois State Snack

In 2003, popcorn gained special status in Illinois. After the state ran a contest seeking ideas for an official state snack food, Joliet teacher Fran Hollister and her second and third grade students went to work as part of a class project. Lawmakers made it official in August, passing legislation that declared popcorn the official snack food of Illinois

There are 333 Illinois farms that grow popcorn on 47,000 acres, making Illinois the third largest grower of the product. Mason County grows more popcorn than any county in the U.S., and only Indiana and Iowa produce more popcorn annually than Illinois. 

Popcorn growers in Mason County sell to a variety of wholesalers representing nationwide brands as bagged popcorn seeds, microwave popcorn, or prepared popcorn. Their products are also sold to local grocers and farmers markets. 

There are four different kinds of corn – field corn, flint corn, sweet corn and popcorn, which is a special kind of flint corn that is edible. Field planting and production methods are similar with field corn, but there is extra care with the processing of popcorn. 

Popcorn pops because its kernel contains a small drop of water that suddenly expands when exposed to high heat. The kernel turns inside-out as it explodes. 

In its purest form with no additives, popcorn is high in fiber, low in calories and fat, and has no sodium or sugar. Popcorn also contains protein, calcium, and iron, making it a good food choice for people on dietary restrictions. Gardeners can try their hand at planting popcorn in their backyards. Popcorn should be planted in early spring, after the threat of frost has passed, and it takes 90-110 days to mature. Popcorn is harvested once the kernels are hard and husks are dry. 

The U.S. is the No. 1 producer and consumer of popcorn in the world, with Americans estimated to consumer 15 billion quarts every year. Popcorn’s origins date back to its cultivation by Native Americans in the southwest and Mexico, possibly as far back as 5,000 years ago. 

On National Popcorn Day, here are some suggestions from an Illinois teacher for activities using popcorn.