ALBANY For 44 minutes Tuesday evening, the state Senate was engulfed in a semi-contentious debate.
The issue at hand had nothing to do with state spending, medical marijuana or any of the other hotly debated topics floating around the Capitol these days.
No, the lengthy debate focused on something far more cultured: yogurt.
The Senate voted 52-8 late Tuesday to declare yogurt the official state snack, though it's unclear if the state Assembly will follow suit. The idea came from a fourth-grade class from Byron-Bergen Elementary School in Genesee County, which penned a letter to all state lawmakers urging them to support it.
Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer, R-Amherst, Erie County, took up the class' effort and sponsored the bill, which placed him in the role of ardently defending yogurt as a snack food as Democratic lawmakers hurled a bevy of questions his way:
Why yogurt? Why not pretzels, or the potato chip? Not all yogurts are healthy, are they? And of course: What exactly is a snack, anyway?
"I think it's self-explanatory," Ranzenhofer said when asked by Sen. Gustavo Rivera, D-Bronx, for his definition of a snack. "I mean, you have breakfast, lunch and dinner, and then you have snacks. That's the way I would define it, as a snack. And Senator Rivera, knowing how much time that you and I have spent in the lunch room, I think that we both know."
Rivera wanted to know more.
"So a snack could be anything that is -- to understand the definition, a snack is anything that is eaten in between the main meals of the day of breakfast or lunch or director?" Rivera asked. "Is that correct?"
Ranzenhofer replied: "When you were giving your example, a snack is something that you eat at other meals, but the snack is the actual product."
New York has dozens of official state symbols set by law, ranging from a state bird (the eastern bluebird) and reptile (the snapping turtle) to an official state beverage (2 percent milk) and muffin (apple).
Every so often, lawmakers push to create a new category, often at the urging of a school in their district. In recent years, lawmakers have debated creating an official state vegetable and mineral, among other categories.
Ranzenhofer said the idea for yogurt as the state snack came from teacher Craig Schroth's class at Byron-Bergen. Earlier this year, the fourth-grade class had been learning about state government, when the Russian government blocked a shipment of Chobani yogurt during the Winter Olympics, Ranzenhofer said.
"Through the course of their studies and what was happening in current events, they decided that this would be a great example of a state snack," Ranzenhofer said. "It makes sense from a health standpoint in that yogurt contains many vital ingredients that are healthy. Specifically, yogurt tastes great, it's a good source of protein, calcium, Vitamin B, calcium and magnesium, all nutrients that are part of a good and healthy diet."
In its letter to lawmakers, the elementary school pointed to New York's burgeoning yogurt industry. In 2012, 692 million pounds of yogurt were produced in New York, more than any other state, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office.
Chenango County is home to Chobani, a major Greek yogurt producer.
Closer to the Byron-Bergen school, Alpina Foods and Muller Quaker Dairy have both opened yogurt plants in Batavia within the last two years.
"Our fourth graders learned about dairy farmers, the trucking industry, yogurt processing facilities, and retail stores that depend on yogurt sales," the letter reads. "In fact, we have a dairy farm right next to our school."
Not everyone was on board with the bill, however, and the Assembly still has to pass it before it gets to Cuomo's desk. Eight senators voted against it, including Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan.
"If you're going to pick a state snack, I think you should actually go through some process to ask the people of New York to weigh in on it," Krueger said during the debate.
She started to laugh.
"You notice the pun?" she asked. "Whey? Yogurt?"