The cost of school lunch is expected to increase next year, as the School Committee will vote at its next meeting on whether to approve a proposal from Gail Koutroubas, director of food and nutrition services, for higher prices.

At its June 6 meeting, Koutroubas initially proposed to the committee to maintain the $3 lunch prices at the elementary schools, increase lunch prices at the middle schools to $3.25, and make all lunches at the high school $3.50.

"I don't think $3.50 for what we're serving at the high school is unreasonable," she said, noting that lunch options include fresh haddock, brand-name cold cuts, smoothies, fresh fruit and more.

The need for increased lunch prices comes largely from the 11.9% increase in grocery prices, said Koutroubas. She said the district is used to seeing 3% to 5% increases, and they have more than doubled.

The price of compostables also makes school lunches more expensive to provide. Everything in the cafeteria, with the exception of forks, knives and spoons, is compostable.

"A lot of the things aren't getting composted that we're buying, so I'm thinking, 'Why are we buying compostable and not recyclable?'" Koutroubas said at the meeting. "I have frustrations with the fact that I have to buy it and it has to be compostable, but it's not getting composted."

Koutroubas said another reason she is seeking an increase in lunch prices is because the cost of labor has increased, and the rate of health insurance drastically exceeded her expectations. She said the health insurance cost for the department is over $300,000.

"To be quite frank, to ask a school nutrition program to pay that, I've been arguing this since I've been here as a director, is really very, very difficult," she said.

With about 1,000 lunches being served daily at the high school, the problem of long lines is one that Koutroubas said is on her radar. She met with the Student Council and said one of the major complaints they expressed was the long wait for food.

An app to pre-order lunch has already been implemented in an effort to reduce the time spent waiting in line. Kotroubas said she now hopes to put in a portable lunch line.

School Committee members were on board with Koutroubas' request for a price increase. Member Shannon Scully even urged her to aim higher if she felt the incoming revenue could fund solutions to the issue of long lines.

"These prices seem incredibly reasonable and I wouldn't be against a more aggressive proposal either," said Scully. "I would encourage you to be potentially more aggressive with the pricing in order to be able to do the things you think you could do to bring down the lines and provide the level of service you're comfortable doing."

School Committee Member Susan McCready said she agreed "100 percent" with Scully.

"If there's some adjustment to be made up so that we could address some problems, I can't imagine that that would be an issue," she said.

Noting previous conversations regarding the cost of attending public schools in Andover, School Committee Member Paul Murphy echoed what other committee members said, but also noted he would appreciate keeping prices as low as possible for families.

"I don't want to go out of control," he said. "But if there's a substantial improvement that could happen from a small increase, I think that matters."

Following the discussion with the committee, Koutroubas will continue to work in conjunction with Paul Szymanski, assistant superintendent of finance and administration, to come up with a final proposal the committee will vote on at their meeting June 20.

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