By Ethan Gotsch
In the fall of 2019, Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) announced the hiring of Isaiah Ruffin, the first-ever executive chef in the school district. From the beginning of his employment with ACPS, Ruffin made it clear that he was not content with the standard quality level of cafeteria food.
He hoped to better the quality of food through his ambitious master plan to transform the school kitchen. In this plan, all food would be made from scratch on-site, using locally-sourced ingredients and environmentally-friendly methods that reduce waste, all by 2023.
His plan was continually promoted and publicized throughout ACPS’s social media accounts, indicating that the school district was in the beginning of a new era of fresh, local, and healthy food. However, on October 6, roughly one year into the proposed three-year plan, Ruffin announced his resignation as executive chef.
“December was when I really had that first thought, like, you know what, this may not be the right place for me,” Ruffin said during an interview with Theogony. Ruffin said he initially received a lot of support and optimism at the beginning of his time at ACPS. “There was definitely a lot of support from the stakeholders and a lot of the leadership. And when I say leadership, I’m not necessarily talking about nutrition. I’m talking about the superintendent, some other departments like facilities and communication – they were all very supportive.”
Ruffin said he also had a great experience working with local farms and organizations who reached out to him after The Washington Post published an article about him on January 2. The piece went in-depth into his goals as the ACPS executive chef: to eliminate pre-packaged foods and eventually make all foods from scratch. It also discussed Ruffin’s dissatisfaction with the job title of “cafeteria worker,” and how he wanted to change the title to reflect their new role in the kitchen – not just people preparing frozen food, but chefs.
However, after the Post article was published, Ruffin soon realized his goals were not fully supported by leadership within the Department of School Nutrition Services. “After The Washington Post did that article featuring me and talking about the things I really wanted to change and move forward,” said Ruffin, “my supervisor brought me into the office and was like, ‘Hey, I understand you have all these great ideas and want to do this, but we’re never going to cook from scratch.’ … she might have given us a percentage, but there was never a full commitment to converting us to scratch. And this was two months in,” Ruffin explained.
Cynthia Hormel, the Director of School Nutrition Services, requested that all questions about Ruffin’s resignation and the future of ACPS food be forwarded to Helen Lloyd, the Executive Director for the Office of Communications.
Lloyd indicated that ACPS is currently searching for a new executive chef and is in the process of reviewing applications. With regard to future plans for ACPS food, Lloyd said, “ACPS School Nutrition Services has a master plan in the same way that all ACPS offices and departments are required to have a master plan. This is created in collaboration with senior leadership and shared with the superintendent and Board on an annual basis.”
When asked if ACPS supports Ruffin’s plan to ultimately make all food in-house with 75% of the food sourced locally, Lloyd said, “ACPS is committed to sourcing a large percentage of our food locally,” adding, “This has always been our end goal.”
On the issue of ACPS kitchens running on zero waste, Lloyd said ACPS is committed to operating “with a green footprint.” She said elementary schools are returning to reusable trays, and students are encouraged to only take food they want to eat, and said that this “minimizes our carbon footprint.”
“People deserve access to healthy and nutritious food,” said T.C. junior Ellie Lo, adding that “scratch cooking is healthier and in my opinion tastier, and using local products supports local businesses.”
Ruffin discussed some of the highlights of his short time with ACPS. He said school administrative teams told him they loved the new changes he was making to school food. Even one school that was not initially won over came around after receiving so much positive feedback to Ruffin’s vegan Shepherd’s Pie.
“The parents by far were the biggest supporters,” said Ruffin, “Whenever I tried something new or addressed a concern, they were like, ‘oh my god, this is great! Why can’t all school food be like this?’”
The ACPS School Nutrition Services’ Facebook page is filled with promotions of Ruffin’s innovative approach to school food. “Around the World Wednesday,” globally inspired plant-based meals, was a new feature Ruffin brought to elementary schools across Alexandria. Ruffin featured everything from Ethiopian Doro Wat to Pad Thai.
ACPS also released several videos in which Ruffin shows how to make homemade and healthy versions of ketchup, chicken & biscuits, and overnight French toast. When asked why these videos weren’t widely distributed, particularly in the high school, Ruffin attributed that to communication problems and personality conflicts between departments.
Ruffin says T.C. students may not have been aware of the changes he was making to school food, since most of his focus started at the elementary school level. T.C. junior Neil Gascon said he didn’t notice much of a change in T.C. cafeteria food during the months leading up to the pandemic: “It just didn’t feel like [the T.C. cafeteria] had enough diversity, the food … wasn’t healthy enough… in my opinion, it was kind of the same-old, same-old.”
Gascon also talked about his experiences with the food service ACPS has been offering during the pandemic. While he said the beginning was rocky, the food and the way that it is packaged and distributed has improved with time. “In the beginning [of ACPS’s food service], the healthiest stuff you would get was fruits like apples [and] oranges, [but] sometimes they would be moldy or smell kind of funky, or have a lot of weird bruises,” Gascon said.
“Now they’re [providing] the salads you would see in the T.C. cafeteria. They’re adding more sandwiches in addition to the snacks they always had, so it’s definitely gotten better,” said Gascon. Even so, Gascon was doubtful that the food was made on-site from scratch. “A lot of it was basically prepackaged, especially the breakfast foods.”
For now, the future of ACPS food remains unknown. According to Lloyd, a new executive chef will be hired and “continue to explore opportunities for new and creative food options.” However, Ruffin said food nutrition services are “going to be kind of grim for a while.” He continued, “There’s been a lot of major changes happening [in ACPS]… but that same push isn’t happening for nutrition in ACPS. The nutrition department is very reactive. There’s no real strategic plan… it’s basically ‘we’ll see what happens and we’ve just got to keep giving kids lunches.’”
He attributes this to the fact that funding for nutrition services comes from the number of students who buy school breakfast and lunch, so the emphasis is put on serving as many students as possible rather than the quality of the food itself.
However, Ruffin, who is also an ACPS parent, doesn’t want the community to give up hope on the possibility of better school food. His advice to parents desiring change in ACPS’s food is, “Never let up on what you want. If you want healthier food for your children and less chicken nuggets and corn, you need to keep pressing nutrition services. If nutrition services are blowing you off and not giving you the respect you think you deserve as a parent, then go to the next person, go to the superintendent, show up at school board meetings. If you want something, you’ve got to go for it.”