The Good Food District is an initiative of Project New Village that uses food as a mechanism for improving quality of life and promoting resilience at the neighborhood-level. This semester San Diego State University students are bridging the gap between academia and on-the-ground endeavors; students enrolled in Geography 590 are actively conducting research on the impact of the alternative food system in the Good Food District, centered around urban agriculture, to remediate local social and environmental issues.
A Mutually-beneficial Partnership
The relationship between Project New Village and SDSU students is mutualistic, just like the microorganisms that thrive in the healthy soil of a well-cared for garden. PNV will benefit from the data collected through the class and will be able to use this information to apply for grants that would allow it to achieve its long-term objectives and shape other related projects. Students, on the other hand, have the unique opportunity to practice community-based geographic research while advancing food justice in Southeastern San Diego.
This is not the first time that Professor Joassart-Marcelli – the course instructor - collaborates with Project New Village to provide students with hands-on research experience. A few years ago, students helped collect data that became the basis of a report: https://fep.sdsu.edu/Docs/Report.pdf
At the first class meeting, students met with Diane Moss, the Managing Director of Project New Village. She gave them a brief overview on the history of the area and explained some of the key issues the Good Food District aims to address, such as the prevalence of diet-related illnesses and the limited capacity for economically-strained businesses to procure local produce. Rather than making assumptions, students are encouraged to listen to community members and ensure that the evaluation process is both inclusive and participatory.
Course structure: Phases 1, 2, and 3
The course is structured so that students can choose to investigate a topic related to the Good Food District that most interests them. The areas of focus include: Health and Food Security; Sustainability and Ecosystem Services; Community Cohesion, Sense of Place, and Civic Participation; and Food Economies.
Before students begin their fieldwork, they reviewed the literature already available on the topic. This helped them to select a specific research question, identify a promising approach, and become familiar with what is already known on their topic of interest. They then explored existing public sources of data such as the US Census, Google Earth, public health surveys, and the SDSU Food Environment Audit. These preliminary steps ensure that students become familiar with the neighborhood’s conditions and have a preliminary understanding of its needs before going out in the community to collect additional data.
Can community gardens be an environmentally sustainable way to obtain nutritional food in an urban setting? Is there sufficient purchasing power in the community for businesses to source local produce, which is often more expensive? These are the types of critical questions that students are seeking to answer throughout the course of their research. To this end, they have began collecting data in a variety of ways including storytelling, food environmental audits, restaurant and shop owner interviews, garden audits, and participant observation.
The course culminates with the choice of completing a Powerpoint presentation or a written report. Instructor Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is optimistic that the data collected can be used as a baseline for future research. This is the first step of data collection, and she hopes the information can be used in the future to track the positive change the Good Food District is generating in the community. Geography 590 appears to be a win-win for both SDSU students and Southeastern San Diego residents. Students have the opportunity to engage in a practical application of their coursework-- observing first-hand the impacts of urban gardens and personally contributing to research that will ideally help sustain them. As a result of the students’ efforts, Project New Village will have access to an abundance of data that may enable the organization to broaden its impact. “What the students are doing is really interesting from an academic perspective, but it’s also really important in terms of policy and social change,” says Professor Joassart-Marcelli. “Southeastern San Diego is a unique community that has historically been neglected; it has higher needs than most of the neighborhoods I’ve had a chance to work with, but there are also tremendous opportunities and a momentum to address some of these needs through food justice.” The partnership between SDSU and Project New Village sets a powerful example of how public institutions and nonprofits can leverage their respective strengths and work together to support and empower historically marginalized communities.