map of San diego

Our Research

Anchored in the College of Arts and Letters and the College of Sciences and decidedly interdisciplinary, the BFF Center brings together faculty from different colleges across the SDSU campus with expertise in anthropology, biology, biochemistry, ecology, environmental studies, food studies, geography, health, nutrition, food science, marketing, and sustainability to engage in collaborative and action-oriented research that will be useful for local communities and provide educational opportunities for the growing number of students interested in food system issues. 

According to the most recent IPCC Assessment Report, today’s food system is simultaneously a “primary victim of climate change” and “one of its main causes.” There is strong empirical evidence that climate change is stressing and negatively affecting the productivity of agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and aquaculture, in turn threatening food security and livelihoods. It is also clear that vulnerable groups such as women, children, low-income households, small-scale producers, Indigenous people, and ethnic/racial minorities, suffer disproportionately from these negative impacts, which are predicted to rise in the future.

Scientists are increasingly recognizing the urgency of rethinking food production and consumption to reduce greenhouse gas emission and environmental degradation and to address the concomitant social crises related to lost livelihoods and rising food and nutrition insecurity. We must transition towards more sustainable and equitable approaches to production, including agroecology, agroforestry, and regenerative, conservation, and climate-smart agriculture. Interestingly, many of these solutions have long been practiced by Indigenous and small-scale producers, without the recognition of mainstream science and against policies that devalued them in favor of modernization and intensification.  

The SDSU Center for Better Food Future aims to promote solutions to address these interrelated social and environmental crises by fostering a better understanding of community- and ecosystem-based food practices and their contributions to food sustainability, security, and sovereignty. The BFF Center supports critical research to inform and facilitate the transition towards more sustainable food systems that curb climate change, effectively manage environmental resources, improve livelihoods for people across agri-food occupations, alleviate poverty and promote resilience, value indigenous and traditional forms of knowledge, and foster participatory governance. 

Transnational Approaches to Sustainable Food Futures: Integrated High-Impact Learning Experiences and Multiple Pathways to Food Careers

PI/PD: Pascale Joassart-Marcelli, Co-PDs: Lluvia Flores-Renteria, Changqi Liu, John Love, Ramona Perez, Waverly Ray (Mesa College), and Stephen Welter
Funded by: U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) Collaborate Educational Grant

This project, which just began in September 2022, creates a high-impact program that includes team-taught courses, multi-site, bi-national internships, and integrated mentoring to incentivize Latinx undergraduate and graduate students to pursue food and agricultural careers. Indeed, because of cumulative educational and social barriers, Latinx students lack the skills and confidence to become leaders in solving food security and sustainability problems disproportionately burdening their communities - an educational gap we seek to remedy.

To do so, we take an interdisciplinary and systemic approach to food security, centering on indigenous and immigrant farming and food practices in the US and Mexico and their capacity to support and inform sustainable food production and consumption in the face of economic and environmental pressures. We address important knowledge gaps regarding our ability to feed the world sustainably and equitably and provide a unique opportunity for Latinx students to enter food and agricultural sciences in culturally engaging ways that value and build on their collective experiences and knowledge to develop solutions for food security and sustainability. 

During the next 4 years (September 2022 to August 2026), we will offer scholarships and subsidize travel expenses to allow undergraduate and graduate students to participate in a new team-taught course entitled Transnational Approaches to Sustainable Food Futures; meet key food system actors at our colloquium series; join summer internships in Baja California, Oaxaca, and San Diego, and engage in research. We will also create a near-peer-mentoring program to support students throughout these activities and a pipe-line program to recruit students from Mesa College. Our goal is to prepare students and establish pathways to successful careers in food and agriculture. 

By project end, 36 undergraduates and 7 master’s students will complete their degrees and 3 PhD students will be at or near completion. We will reach a pipeline of 400 high school students and 16 high school educators host a public colloquium series focusing on sustainable food futures.

Food, Ethnicity, and Place: Feeding Families and Nourishing Communities 

PI/PD: Pascale Joassart-Marcelli (Geography, SDSU), Co-PI: Fernando Bosco (Geography, SDSU)
Funded by: National Science Foundation (2011-2016)

This project seeks to understand how children and their families make food choices within the constraints and opportunities presented by place, culture, and ethnicity. Focusing on three neighborhoods in the City of San Diego (City Heights, Southeastern San Diego and Little Italy), we investigate variations in residents’ accessibility and relations to the local food environment and identify the main factors these intra-urban differences, 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. 

This project resulted in several publications, including articles such as Food Journeys published in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers, an edited book entitled Food and Place: A Critical Exploration, and a report on Southeastern San Diego’s foodscape for Project New Village.  

Ethnic Food, Cosmopolitan Foodscapes, and Gentrification 

PI/PD: Pascale Joassart-Marcelli (Geography, SDSU)
Funded by: College of Arts and Letters Microgrant (2019) and University Grant Program (2016-2017)

This project examines the relationship between our taste for ethnic food and the transformation of immigrant and ethnic neighborhoods by the influx of foodies in search of authenticity and cosmopolitanism. Focusing on San Diego, it reveals how the media, developers, foodies, and even nonprofit organizations participate in gastro-development by using food as a catalyst for neighborhood revitalization. In the process, ethnic foodscapes that were built over time to serve the needs of minoritized residents who have historically faced limited food access are transformed into cosmopolitan foodscapes that please the tastes of wealthier and whiter newcomers, thereby causing displacement and gentrification.

This project resulted in several articles, including an editorial in The Conversation, a few podcasts on platforms such as FoodTank, and a book entitled The $16 Taco: Contested Geographies of Food, Ethnicity, and Gentrification (Washington University Press, 2021), which won several awards.

Integrating Indigenous and Urban Farming to Incentivize Latino Agricultural Career Choices

PI/PD: Changqi Liu (Foods and Nutrition, SDSU), John J. Love (Biochemistry, SDSU), David L. Larom (Environmental Science, SDSU), Ramona L. Pérez (Anthropology, SDSU)
Funded by: United States Department of Agriculture (2017-2021)

The Sustainable, Optimized Urban and Latino-driven Agriculture (SOULA) project aimed to provide innovative solutions to food security through interdisciplinary collaborations, the incorporation of indigenous knowledge, and the development of a pipeline of diverse specialists with flexible skill-sets in the fields of food and agriculture. We provided hands-on research experiences to students through our Indigenous to Urban Agriculture course, Food Security Internship, and Summer Field School. In our lecture and laboratory curricula, students were introduced to the traditional milpa (multispecies interplanting) technique, modern urban agricultural methods, and advanced scientific instrumentation. They then applied the knowledge in real-world projects through the internship. We also provided study abroad opportunities where students worked alongside indigenous farmers and documented traditional food and farming practices that may be lost in subsequent generations. Our studies on edible insects in Oaxaca and hydroponic food production have been published. Additional SOULA activities.

Building a Hyper-Local Food Grower Community of Practice

PI/PD: Ariel Hamburger (San Diego County), Pascale Joassart-Marcelli (SDSU, Geography), Amanda McClain (SDSU, Exercise and Nutrition Sciences), and Diane Moss (Project New Village)
Funded by: Danone Foundation: One Planet, One Health (2019-2021)

This project examines the feasibility of creating a hyper-local food production and distribution system by supporting the creation of a community of practice among residential growers, encouraging them to share resources and knowledge and sell their produce to Project New Village - a local nonprofit working to create a Good Food District in Southeastern San Diego. Specifically, it seeks to create a hyper-local distribution network to improve access to locally grown food for restaurants and residents via a farm stand and a newly established mobile farmers market. 

This project and other related initiatives are described in this Story Map and the conditions it seeks to address are outlined in this report.

Climate Change Adaptation through Agroforestry

PI/PD: Amy Quandt (SDSU, Geography)
Funding proposals under review

Human activities are unequivocally affecting our earth’s climate system. Changes in weather and climate extremes have been documented across agroecosystems, making it critically important to both livelihoods and ecosystems to implement innovative, sustainable strategies to adapt agricultural systems to the impacts of climate change. The goal of this project is to provide a baseline for understanding if and how agroforestry can be an innovative tool for climate change adaptation in San Diego County, California. Agroforestry, or the planting of trees in an agricultural landscape, is often praised as a sustainable approach to climate change adaptation, and previous research has shown how agroforestry is often identified by farmers themselves as a critical resource. While agroforestry can provide a multitude of economic, social, and environmental benefits as outlined above, it is not well understood how agroforestry can contribute to adapting agriculture to specific climate change-impacts, such as drought. This is particularly important for farmers in arid and semi-arid environments (such as San Diego County) as these agroecosystems are particularly sensitive to the impacts of climate change, with devastating impacts on crop production and farmer livelihoods.

Response and Resilience Following Compound Extreme Events

PI/PD: Amy Quandt (Geography, SDSU), J. Terrence McCabe (Anthropology, UC Boulder), Paul Leslie (Anthropology, UNC Chapel Hill)
Funded by: National Science Foundation (2022-2025)

Climate change impacts are becoming increasingly common, severe, and complex. Multiple climate disasters (droughts, floods, extreme heat) may occur simultaneously or in succession, and interact with non-climate factors (COVID-19 pandemic, land management legislation), compounding the overall impacts and leading to increased vulnerability of social-ecological systems. While the potential impact of compound disasters is recognized, little is known about how natural-resource dependent societies experiencing them respond and build resilience. Our three research questions focus on (1) the impacts of compound disasters on pastoral systems with different land management systems, (2) understanding objective and subjective resilience to compound disasters, and (3) the impacts on the social institutions that are critical to a society’s ability to respond, cope, and recover. Thus, this project aims to understand the response to and impact of compound disasters, using East African pastoral systems as a case study. Such understanding is directly relevant to climate change adaptation and efforts to reduce disaster risk and build resilience in the face of compound disasters. 

Understanding COVID-19 Testing and Vaccine Access for Daytime Farmworkers in Imperial County, California

PI/PD: Annie Keeney (School of Social Work, SDSU), Amy Quandt (Geography, SDSU), Mercy Villasenor (School of Social Work, SDSU), Daniela Flores (Imperial Valley Equity and Justice Coalition), Luis Flores Jr. (Imperial Valley Equity and Justice Coalition)
Funded by: UC Davis Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety (2021-2022)

Among COVID-19 mortality, farmworkers are at an increased risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19, even when other social determinants of health were controlled such as poverty, insurance, and COVID-19 language accessibility. Imperial County has the highest proportion of non-white residents in the state of California and a COVID-19 mortality rate more than double the second highest county in the state. The county’s daytime labor force is particularly affected yet understudied. Commuting from Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico, the daytime farmworker population is typically in the US daily from 2-3 am to 4-6 pm to ensure Imperial County’s food supply chain continues, yet these workers remain essentially invisible to county vaccination efforts and are excluded from safety net programs. We assessed both daytime and resident farmworker health and safety needs, support for access to COVID-19 testing and vaccination, and COVID-19 related stressors through 12 interviews and 199 surveys with farmworkers. Results from this project have been published in two separate publications in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, one focused on general stressors and the other on latina farmworkers. This project has also been featured in the food-focused online newsource Civil Eats.

Sustainable Agroecosystems: Harnessing Policy-driven Land Use Change for the Sustainability, Productivity, and Vitality of Agroecosystems

PI/PD: Ashely Larsen (Bren School, UC Santa Barbara), Dan Sousa (Geography, SDSU), Amy Quandt (Geography, SDSU)
Funded by: United States Department of Agriculture (2022-2026)

The cessation of agricultural production in California’s central valley ("land retirement") has risks and opportunities for rural livelihoods, ecological communities, and ecosystem services. Despite being a widespread and expanding land use, fundamental questions of whether, when, and where retired lands contribute ecosystem services (e.g. plant health and pest control) or disservices (e.g. seed rains), and how farmers perceive and respond to nearby land use change remain poorly understood. Our goal is to elucidate interactions between retired agriculture and surrounding working and natural lands to promote ecosystem service provision and reduce the ecological footprint of production activities. Our research objectives are to, (1) characterize revegetation after retirement, (2) identify relationships between retirement, revegetation, and adjacent crop health and pesticide use, (3) build predictive models of ecosystem service impact for retirement scenarios under California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), (4) engage producers in understanding the impacts of surrounding retirement, and co-develop management recommendations to maximize the benefits of surrounding agricultural retirement. Using California’s historic drought (2011-2017) as a natural experiment, we will leverage remote sensing, causal inference and qualitative methods to characterize revegetation, and determine the impacts on surrounding plant health and pesticides. Using past as prologue, we will forecast the impacts of SGMA and co-develop solutions with stakeholders that leverage land retirement to increase the sustainability of remnant agriculture. 

Ethnic and Immigrant Food Businesses’ Contribution to Community Food Security

PI/PD: Pascale Joassart-Marcelli (SDSU Geography) and Fernando Bosco (SDSU, Geography)

This ongoing project focuses on the role of small and informal ethnic and immigrant businesses in contributing to community food security by increasing access to fresh and healthy food in areas often described as food deserts. These include small grocery and convenience stores as well as street vendors, whose activities are increasingly surveilled and threatened by increased regulations. The project also investigates the importance of these businesses in providing livelihoods for residents whose access to jobs in other sectors of employment is often limited by discrimination and lack of transferable marketable skills.  

A sample publication is our article in Environment and Planning A.

Capacity-oriented Approaches to Food Security, Diet Quality, and Cardiovascular Disease Risk among Hispanics/Latinos

PI/PD: Amanda C. McClain (School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences, SDSU)
Funded by: National Institutes of Health - National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

This ongoing project uses mixed methods to identify existing capacities within San Diego County and among U.S. Hispanic/Latino adults that can inform development of a pilot intervention in a federally-qualified health center to promote food security, nutritious diets, and cardiovascular health among low-income Hispanics/Latinos in San Diego.

The role of Neighborhood and Household Food Environments and Food Shopping Behaviors in Shaping Diet Quality and Glucose Metabolism among Hispanic/Latino Youth and their Caregivers

PI/PD: Amanda C. McClain (School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences, SDSU)
Funded by: Einstein School of Medicine New York Regional Center for Diabetes Translational Research Pilot & Feasibility Grant (Center is funded by the National Institutes of Health)

The project capitalizes on an existing U.S. cohort study of Hispanics/Latinos from diverse heritages living in four cities (Bronx, Chicago, Miami, San Diego). The aim of the project is to elucidate the complex interplay of food shopping behaviors in the context of the neighborhood food environment and household food security status, and how these collectively influence the home food environment, diet quality, and glucose metabolism among Hispanic/Latino caregivers and youth. 

Proyecto MESA - Measuring Food Insecurity in Latinx Families: Expanding Understanding of their Experiences through Exploratory Interviewing and Cognitive Testing

PI/PD: Amanda C. McClain (School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences, SDSU)
Funded by: U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service-Tufts 25 Years of Food Security Measurement

The U.S. Household Food Security Survey Measure (HFSSM) is a validated survey-based measure broadly representing food security experiences of U.S. households and is the measure that has been used to estimate yearly U.S. food security prevalence for 25 years. However, whether or not the HFSSM adequately captures the food insecurity experiences of Latinx households is unknown. Through community-based qualitative research, Proyecto MESA seeks to 1) understand how Latinx caregivers perceive and interpret the HFSSM items and responses, and 2) elucidate how well HFSSM items capture the Latinx experiences related to the quantitative, qualitative, psychological, and social domains of food insecurity. Findings have potential to improve food insecurity measurement and provide clearer targets for intervention. More information about this unique funding mechanism, the project awardees, and the 25 Years of Food Security Measurement virtual conference.

School Nutrition Advancement for Caribbean Kids (SNACK) Workshop

PI/PD: Changqi Liu (Foods and Nutrition, SDSU), Shirin Hooshmand (Foods and Nutrition, SDSU), Mark J. Kern (Foods and Nutrition, SDSU), Mee Young Hong (Foods and Nutrition, SDSU), Amanda McClain (Foods and Nutrition, SDSU), Surabhi Bhutani (Foods and Nutrition, SDSU)
Funded byr: United States Department of Agriculture (2019)

With a goal of promoting healthy food choices and reducing childhood obesity, this past project provided a school nutrition workshop for USDA fellows from St. Lucia. In this two-week workshop, the fellows learned from experts in the field of foods and nutrition about various topics related to food safety, nutrition, and physical activity. The workshop also provides a toolkit for establishing school garden-to-cafeteria programs in St. Lucia. More on workshop activities.

Generating Seafood Flavor from Macroalgae Protein Hydrolysates through Maillard Reactions

PI/PD: Jing Zhao (Foods and Nutrition, SDSU), Changqi Liu (Foods and Nutrition, SDSU)
Funded by: The Good Food Institute (2022-2024)

Alternative seafood products have grown considerably in the past few years. Flavor, appearance, and texture are key quality determinants of alternative seafood products. The goal of this project is to develop an easy and cost-effective way to produce seafood flavors from algal proteins through enzymatic hydrolysis and Maillard reaction.

Improving the Functionalities and Applications of Rice Protein Ingredients

PI/PD: Jing Zhao (Foods and Nutrition, SDSU), Changqi Liu (Foods and Nutrition, SDSU), Olive Li (Food Science, Cal Poly Pomona)
Funded by: California State University Agricultural Research Institute (2019-2023)

California is the second largest rice producing state in the US, producing over five billion pounds of rice annually with an economic value of around one billion dollars. During rice milling, large quantities (12-15%) of rice brans that contain 13-15% of proteins are generated. However, the utilization of rice bran proteins is limited due to their poor extractability and functionality. The goal of this project is to optimize protein extraction from rice bran and promote its applications as a food ingredient.