Food, Ethnicity and Place:
Feeding Families and Nourishing Communities

Project Investigators:
Pascale Joassart Marcelli, Ph.D., Principal Investigator
Fernando J. Bosco, Ph.D., Co-Principal Investigator

Project Description

“Food, Ethnicity and Place: Feeding Families and Nourishing Communities” seeks to generate a better understanding of how children and their families make food choices within the constraints and opportunities presented by place, culture and ethnicity. The three-year project, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, focuses on intra-urban differences in food environments and ethnic variations in families’ and children’s food practices in three communities of the City of San Diego: City Heights, Southeastern San Diego and Little Italy. The project investigates residents’ accessibility and relations to the local food environment and identifies the main factors that explain variations within and across the three study areas, including socio-economic characteristics of neighborhoods, their historical transformation into ethnic enclaves, and broader political and economic processes that direct private and public resources and shape the urban landscape. Particular attention is given to the enabling/constraining capacities of place in shaping social reproduction and children's agency in influencing family practices, resisting gendered divisions of labor, and creating new bridges between home and other environments.

Report on Southeastern San Diego's Food Landscape

Montage of urban farm on left, neighborhood store on right
Fresh produce in crates


2015/2016 Project Update

During the last year, Professors Marcelli and Bosco’s work on the project focused on three major activities:

  • Analyzing and mapping data from participatory research activities with school children to investigate the everyday food geographies
  • Analyzing the food environment in our three study areas, focusing specifically on ethnic markets and the transformation of our study neighborhoods over time
  • Conducting interviews of families regarding their place-based food practices

A number of conference presentations and published work related to the project has been produced (see Documents below). A summary of significant findings this year include:

Map of ethnic stores and 5 and 10 minute walking distances
  • In our study areas, ethnic stores, which are typically too small to be included in typical indicators of food access, provide a significant source of healthy and affordable food
  • Lack of acknowledgment of the positive role these retailers play reflects a racialized and classed understanding of health and a stigmatization of the food environment of low-income neighborhoods
  • Urban agriculture, an increasingly important component of sustainable urban development in San Diego, is unevenly distributed and correlated with gentrification pressures
  • Children and young people face a complex food environment and are faced with contradictory messages regarding healthy food. They are emotionally engaged with what, how and where they eat. Their food routines and choices are structured and governed by social relations, physical and material constraints, biopower, and emotional geographies
  • Preliminary results suggest that families in low-income and ethnically-diverse neighborhoods shop for food and consume food in ways that differ from what is typically assumed from a normalized health perspective. While food is often a source of stress and conflict, it is also a source of pleasure. These emotional geographies are entangled with place-based provision activities and relationships to home, markets, neighborhoods and country of origin

2014/15 Project Update

During the second year of the project, Professors Marcelli and Bosco continued working on the project with a team of graduate and undergraduate students. The aim remained the food environments of City Heights and Southeastern San Diego, but with a specific focus on children and young people. The research team collected a wealth of data on the way young people experience and navigate their food environment. Professors Marcelli and Bosco partnered with leaders in different local institutions to engage young people in their own neighborhood, including a GIS class at Herbert Hoover High School and a group of young girls participating in activities with the United Women of East Africa. The research involved creative activities that included photography, photo voice, interviews, surveys and focus groups. SDSU students played a key and active role in all these different research activities. Research participants from the United Women of East Africa also presented their own experiences of working in the project at the 4th International Conference on the Geographies of Children, Youth and Families, which was held in San Diego in January 2015. Professor's Marcelli and Bosco helped organized and participated in this conference as well. In addition, during this year the research team updated the food environment data for City Heights by re-surveying all food retailers in the neighborhood. These activities included collaboration with the Business Retail Program of the Network for a Healthy California. The team has begun to clean and organized the data, and data analysis will begin in summer 2015 and proceed throughout the rest of next academic year.

2013/14 Project Update

During the first year of the project, Professors Marcelli and Bosco and a team of graduate and undergraduate students documented the main characteristics of the local food environment in each of the study area neighborhoods, distinguishing between private retailers (i.e. formal and informal stores and restaurants, farmers’ markets), community gardens and urban agriculture opportunities, and public and nonprofit food assistance programs. The data collected include, among many other variables, information about availability, price, source, and quality of a variety of food items; esthetics, safety, and convenience of stores and restaurants; participation in public programs; and ethnic affiliation. The team also conducted audits at the weekly farmers’ markets in each neighborhood, visited all community garden and conducted semi-structured interviews of store-owners to assess their perception of their neighborhood and its residents, their understandings of community needs and healthy food and their experiences addressing food security concerns. This detailed assessment of the availability, quality and affordability of various food sources seeks to contribute to a better knowledge of community food security in the area. The research team has been working closely with Project New Village in Southeast San Diego, a non-profit organization working to promote personal, community and communal wellness.


Note: documents in Portable Document Format (PDF) require Adobe Acrobat Reader 5.0 or higher to view, download Adobe Acrobat Reader.

Policy Reports
Southeastern San Diego's Food Landscape: Challenges and Opportunities
Project Report, Executive Summary
Academic Publications
Joassart Marcelli, P., Speed Rossiter, J. and Bosco, F. “Ethnic Markets and Community Food Security in an Urban Food Desert”. Under review
Joassart-Marcelli, P. and Bosco, F. (2015) “Planning for Resilience: Urban Nature and the Emotional Geographies of Children’s Political Engagement” In Blazek, M. and Kraftl, P., eds. Children’s Emotions in Policy and Practice: Mapping and Making Spaces of Childhood. Palgrave Macmillan
Joassart-Marcelli, P. and Bosco, F. (2014) “Alternative Food Projects, Localization and Urban Development: Farmers’ Markets in Southern California” Metropoles 15: 2-22
Bosco, F. and Joassart Marcelli, P. (in press) “Gardens in the City: Community, Politics and Place” Submitted for WinklerPrins. A. (ed) Global Urban Agriculture: Convergence of Theory and Practice between North and South. CABI Publishing.
Conference and Invited Presentations
“Food Journeys: The Everyday Food Practices of Young People in City Heights, San Diego” Presented at the Association of American Geographer’s annual meeting in San Francisco, CA (April 2016)
“Improving Community Food Security in a ‘Food Desert’: The Role of Ethnic Markets”. Presented at the Association of American Geographer’s annual meeting in San Francisco, CA (April 2016)
“Everyday Food Practices of Young People in City Heights, San Diego”. Presented at the Association of Pacific Coast Geographer’s 78th annual meeting in Palm Spring, CA (October 2015)
“Improving Food Security in City Heights, San Diego: The Role of Ethnic Markets”. Presented at the Association of Pacific Coast Geographer’s 78th annual meeting in Palm Spring, CA (October 2015)
“Farmers’ Markets and Gentrification: How the Greening of San Diego’s Food System is Transforming Urban Neighborhoods.” Presented at the Association of American Geographer’s Annual meeting in Chicago, IL (April 2015)
“Gardens in the City: Community, Politics and Place”. Presented at the Association of American Geographer’s Annual meeting in Chicago, IL (April 2015)
“San Diego’s Uneven Food Landscape: Rethinking Food Justice” Department of Geography, San Diego State University (October 17h 2014)
“Food Deserts, Stigmatized Neighborhoods and the Potential for More Just Food Landscapes” Presented at the Association of Pacific Coast Geographer’s 77th annual meeting in Tucson, AZ (September 2014)
“Territorial Stigmatization and The Emotional Geographies of Food Deserts”. Presented at the Joint Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of Food and Society and the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society at the University of Vermont, Burlington, VT (June 19 2014)
“Southeastern San Diego’'s Food Landscape: Challenges and Opportunities”. 14th annual Cesar E. Chavez Community Tribute and Celebration, Project New Village, San Diego, CA (April 2014)
“Food, Ethnicity, and Place: An Exploration of San Diego’s Diverse Food Landscape and its Consequences on Health and Wellbeing”. Human Dimensions of the Mobile Age Lightning Talk Series, San Diego State University (December 11, 2013)
“‘Non-White’ Spaces, the Construction of Difference and the Emotional Geographies of Food Justice.” Presented at the International and Interdisciplinary Conference on Emotional Geographies, University of Groningen, The Netherlands, July 2, 2013
“Emotional Geographies of Food Justice” Special session organized at the International and Interdisciplinary Conference on Emotional Geographies, University of Groningen, The Netherlands. (July 1-3 2013)

Food Courses in Geography at SDSU

This project is the basis for new community-based research and service-learning courses for undergraduate students. The special topic courses (Geog 496) were facilitated by the Service Learning and Community Engagement Program in the Division of Undergraduate Studies at SDSU. The goal of the program is to foster civic engagement, civic participation and civic responsibility through service-learning and community research. The project also provides training for graduate students. The research team is working closely with local organizations in identifying needs and resources, developing solutions, and disseminating findings.

  • Geography 340: Geography of Food - 340 Syllabus
  • Geography 440: Food Justice
  • Geography 496S: Learning Geography through Service: Food Justice (Fall 2012) – 496S Flyer, 496S Syllabus
  • Geography 496: Food and Place (Spring 2013) – 496 Flyer, 496 Syllabus
  • Geography 590: Community Based Geographic Research: : Young People, Food and Place (Fall 2014) – 590-S Syllabus
  • Geography 590: Community Based Geographic Research: : Young People’s Food Routines in City Heights (Spring 2015) – 590 Syllabus