WASHINGTON - Whole-grain crackers, low-fat yogurt, fruit and water could become the school snacks of the future, driving out fattening fancies such as cola and fried chips.

The Institute of Medicine yesterday recommended new standards for school snacks and foods that sharply would limit calories, fat and sugar while encouraging more nutritious eating.

Concerned about the rise of obesity in young people, Congress asked the institute to develop the standards. Lawmakers now will consider them, as will state and local school officials.

"Making sure that all foods and drinks available in schools meet nutrition standards is one more way schools can help children establish lifelong healthy eating habits," said Virginia Stallings, head of the committee that prepared the report.

"Foods and beverages should not be used to reward or to discipline for academic activities or behavior," said Stallings, director of the nutrition center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Food sold in school cafeterias under federally assisted lunch programs already must meet nutritional standards. The institute's recommendations cover items considered competitive with those foods. Examples include snacks in vending machines and other food and drinks sold at school but not under the federal program.

Selling these foods is a money-maker in some communities. Janey Thornton, president of the School Nutrition Association, said she expects complaints about losing this source of money if the recommendations are adopted.

"Shame on us if we try to balance the school budget based on the nutritional health of kids," said Thornton, whose organization represents school-food-service directors.

The standards would not apply to bag lunches that students bring from home.

Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said the recommendations "offer a tool kit for local, state, and federal policymakers who already know that we need to do much more - to promote sound child nutrition and prevent childhood obesity."

But the Center for Consumer Freedom worried that the report could lead to a government "no child with a fat behind" program.

The center, which describes itself as representing restaurants, food companies and individuals, attributed the growing rate of obesity to a lack of physical activity, rather than overeating. *