Mount Wolf Elementary School kindergartner Porter Getner, left, and first-grader Sarah Lesher empty their trays after eating lunch Friday in the school
Mount Wolf Elementary School kindergartner Porter Getner, left, and first-grader Sarah Lesher empty their trays after eating lunch Friday in the school cafeteria. Students are encountering new food options this year as schools comply with the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Act, which requires more fruit and vegetables in school lunches. (Bill Kalina photo)

At Red Lion's Mazie-Gable Elementary cafeteria, students have signs reminding them they need to put fruits or vegetables on their tray.

New federal mandates on nutrition mean more fruits and veggies and smaller portions of meat.

And why is this being done? What benefits are there in swapping in more nutritional food but downsizing student favorites such as chicken tenders?

"The more healthy it is, the less chance of us collapsing in the hallway," Mazie-Gable third-grader Tanika Bowman, 8, said matter of factly.

"Yeah, like a skeleton," added classmate Nicholas Stone as

he chewed on mac and cheese.

Mount Wolf Elementary School third-grader Angelina Duncker talks with classmates during lunch Friday in the school cafeteria.
Mount Wolf Elementary School third-grader Angelina Duncker talks with classmates during lunch Friday in the school cafeteria. (Bill Kalina photo)

Nutrition: An epidemic of students in hallways fainting from malnutrition is likely not what the federal government had in mind. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Act that kicked in this year is aimed at getting more nutritious fare on students' trays.

Whether they like it or not.

Around York County, it has meant a period of adjustment this fall. If students don't take a certain serving size of fruit and/or vegetable, their meal gets charged based on more expensive a la carte pricing.

Pizza day likely means whole wheat crust.

French fries can't be served every day to fill vegetable requirements.

State and local school officials said the first week or so of school included a lot of head-scratching, groans and thrown-away food.

But students are getting used to it now, they said.

Improving: They might even be liking it a little, especially the younger grades.

"If anything, students say they really like the food. It's a lot more variety," said Greg Anderson, principal of Ore Valley Elementary in Dallastown Area School District.

"They are just getting used to taking fruits and vegetables. It's just going to take some time," said Susan Meadows, president of the School Nutrition Association of Pennsylvania, an advocacy organization for school food service programs. "We've never had categories of vegetables."

Those new vegetable categories: Dark green, red/orange, beans/pea, starchy, and other. Each has to be offered at least once a week.

Students also now need at least a half-cup of fruit or vegetable on their tray for it to count as a full meal and not get charged per item.

Unhappy students: That fruit-and-veggie mandate has not gone over well with Red Lion Senior High School ninth-grader Steve Tuttle. Steve said he was "so mad" when he learned of all the nutritional changes.

"Nobody really eats it," he said of the fruits and veggies students must take.

So Steve, like any growing teen with a sweet tooth and an aversion to veggies, managed to get around the system. He unzipped his backpack underneath the cafeteria table to reveal some choice Little Debbie snack cakes he brought from home.

Christopher Flinchbaugh said he doesn't like getting fewer chicken fingers or the other smaller meat portions.

"I have to go home and eat a whole sandwich," Christopher said.

Classmates Brittne Francis and McKayla Cooley added they think some food is being wasted, and they don't like having to pay extra for additional salad dressing now; schools have to restrict how much dressing comes with the meal for nutritional reasons.

More variety: Red Lion football player Ben Otte said, though, he likes the expanded variety.

Tammy Stough, Red Lion's food service director, said there are more romaine and spring mix-type salads rather than iceberg lettuce, for instance, and more hot vegetable options.

"They are trying things they wouldn't have tried," Stough said.

Stough and Mary Tolley, the high school cafeteria manager, said they understand how students could be frustrated, considering all the changes. All the nutritional standards implemented the past few years have really changed school meals, said Tolley, who has served students food for 25 years.

In earlier years, "you could really serve a meal like a mom at home," Tolley said.

Feds, not schools: Vonda Cooke, the state director of the food and nutrition division, said she hopes schools get more innovative in finding ways to overcome the challenges.

At South Eastern School District, smaller meat portion size is probably a top gripe of the high school students, said Superintendent Rona Kaufmann.

Cooke suggests schools with that concern could get the cafeteria to open after school just to serve light snacks to clubs and sports teams and help get them through the early evening.

Cooke also said some students might not be familiar with some of the veggies that are now appearing on their trays.

"There are students who do not receive broccoli at home. They might not know what that is," Cooke said.

Schools need to "make it fun" by doing taste tests and other opportunities for students to get used to the idea.

Parents: York County school officials said they have heard few, if any, complaints from parents. When they do, officials said it's along the lines of "Why are you forcing my child to eat green beans?"

Shawn Harlacher, director of food and nutrition services at South Western School District, said he reminds those parents "no one has to eat anything" and the changes are coming from the federal government, not from South Western.

Although students must put a fruit or veggie on their tray to get the standard meal rate -- generally around $2 -- students can throw away any food they want. There's been less food waste recently, though, he said.

The same message was delivered at the high school a few weeks ago, he added.

About 100 students boycotted buying lunch, upset about such changes as switching to fat-free flavored milk.

The principal then reminded students their frustration would best be addressed by contacting federal officials who have authority to do something about it, Harlacher said. Students have not held a boycott since.

"Most students weren't holding us responsible," Harlacher said.

-- Reach Andrew Shaw at ashaw@yorkdispatch.com