DOWN IN NASHVILLE last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was conducting a food and nutrition panel on the proposal to restrict the sale of junk food in the public schools. "When we sell candy, soda, frozen desserts and gum in schools," said Paul Collins, president-elect of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, "we are telling the child that this is an acceptable food snack." Dr. Durwood Collier, director of dental services for the Tennessee Department of Public Health, agreed, decrying the betrayal of "our children's health for a few quick bucks."

Being perverse, as well as candy-lovers, we ordinarily would take the side of those seeking to make the few quick bucks, at least insofar as this candy business is no fit issue for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But the candy lobbyists have made it very difficult to side with them by arguing their case from a moral point of view. Candy industry lobbyist James E. Mack began his testimony before the panel by calling the world of junk food "an island of pleasure" in the drab sea of school life. Lovely. But then he added, with a sinister touch, that if there's no candy sold in school, and children are thus forced to go off school grounds to get what they want, they may succumb to "other temptations, such as alcohol or drugs." They may even become victims of traffic accidents.

Now we must confess that of all the arguments available to Mr. Mack and his associates, we had not thought of that one. It is, of course, possible that when a child is deprived of a Tastycake, he soon may turn junkie, as Mr. Mack suggests, or become so crazed through deprivation that he stumbles in front of a truck. If so, the future would indeed be grim -- our cities stormed by marauding 10-year-olds, who would kill in a minute for a Twinkie.

We'll believe it when we see it, reserving final judgment till all opinions are in. For the moment we'll simply go along with the statement of G. Richard Schreiber, a vending-machine lobbyist. Said Mr. Schreiber: "We doubt that telling young persons... what they may not eat will have any effect except perhaps to encourage them to eat what they are forbidden." At least he reads his Bible.