October 19, 2022
The program will provide career pathways to students from community college through graduate school
Climate change and a host of other factors increase food insecurity, which disproportionately impacts Latinx and other underserved communities in our region. Now, San Diego State University has received a four-year, $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture to train Latinx students for careers in sustainable agriculture and food science.
“Many of our underrepresented students have faced a lot of cumulative educational and social barriers to higher education and also to being engaged and contributing to solving food security and sustainability problems,” said lead principal investigator Pascale Joassart-Marcelli, a geographer and director of SDSU’s food studies program. She says the grant aims to change that.
At the core of the program will be a class called Transnational Approaches to Sustainable Food Futures (CAL 400), taught by an interdisciplinary team of faculty from anthropology, biology, chemistry, food science and geography.
“We plan to explore sustainable food sources that can supply important nutrients, reduce environmental impact, and enhance agricultural resilience,” said SDSU food scientist Changqi Liu.
The class, to be introduced in spring 2023, will prepare undergraduate and graduate students to engage in summer internships in San Diego and Mexico, learning from immigrant and Indigenous farmers and cooks. The grant will support the research projects of 36 undergraduates, seven master’s students and three Ph.D. students that grow out of these internships.
“As a Hispanic-Serving Institution, we're focused on recruiting students with a Latinx heritage that can see the power of the agricultural knowledge and science that their communities have had for generations,” said SDSU anthropologist Ramona Pérez, who also serves as the director of the Center for Latin American Studies. The program is, however, open to students of all backgrounds.
Partnership with Mesa College
SDSU will partner with San Diego Mesa College, another Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI), to create a pipeline of students from community college through graduate school.
“By opening this program to Mesa College students, we can spark excitement in the research process, build confidence for conducting research, and provide ways for students to see themselves at the next stage of their education,” said Waverly Ray, a professor of geography at Mesa, who says that more than half of Mesa’s student body experiences food insecurity themselves. “This program demonstrates how research can be leveraged to alleviate this real-world problem,” she added.
Selected Mesa College students will receive financial support to take the team-taught class at SDSU and for doing research at the college’s vegetable garden. If they eventually transfer to SDSU and continue in the program, they will receive special counseling, scholarship opportunities and mentoring from both the faculty and peers.
“We really intend on building bridges through different levels of study - from associate to doctoral,” said Joassart-Marcelli.
Food across borders
Summer interns will have the opportunity to study food sustainability in different settings on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Some will travel to Southern Mexico, where SDSU opened its Oaxaca Center for Mesoamerican Studies in May. Pérez says students will work alongside farmers, who will share knowledge gleaned over millennia about everything from milpa agriculture, which features the nutritional combination of corn, beans and squash, to selecting and preserving heritage seeds in case of disease outbreaks in crops.
“The grant is designed to bring in students to demonstrate how indigenous knowledge … has translated into a really powerful science,” said Pérez.
Internationally renowned for its cuisine, Oaxaca has long incorporated insects as a source of sustainable protein into its regional dishes.
“In this project, students will look into different aspects of edible insects, including their cultural importance, nutritional value, production, processing, safety, flavor and consumer acceptance,” said food scientist Liu. “Students will document well-established recipes and develop crave-worthy dishes that can be used to promote insect consumption.”
Liu adds that toasted grasshoppers — called chapulines — are part of the Menú Azteca at the recently opened Snapdragon Stadiu m at SDSU Mission Valley.
Other internships will take students to Baja California to learn about native plants and traditional foodways from members of the Siñaw Kuatay Kumiai (spelled Kumeyaay in the U.S.) tribal community in San Antonio Necua, about 80 miles south of San Diego. SDSU biologist Lluvia Flores-Rentería says the community members will teach the students how they make baskets from native plants, process acorns, and use plants for medicinal purposes.
“California is a marvelous place located in the California Floristic Province, a biodiversity hotspot that reaches from Northern Baja California all the way to the south of Oregon. We're so lucky to live here and we need to protect these resources,” said Flores-Rentería. “We need to be working with Mexico to address the issues that our region has.”
Closer to home, students will engage in urban agriculture in SDSU’s own community gardens. These feature two greenhouses equipped with water-conserving hydroponic systems, raised beds, chicken coops and beehives. Here, students can conduct experiments in sustainable food production practices and develop innovative solutions.
“The idea is to expose our students to both indigenous farming methods as well as more modern cutting-edge farming methods such as hydroponics,” said biochemist John Love, director of SDSU’s environmental science program. Love says this will open up opportunities to pursue careers that contribute to creating more adaptable and resilient food systems in the face of climate change.
Potential career paths include working for government agencies such as the USDA and the FDA, local and international non-governmental organizations, educational institutions and cooperative extension services, the private sector, or in food policy and justice.
“Demographic analyses of US agriculture reveal that all racial groups except white are currently underrepresented,” said SDSU biologist Stephen Welter. “If agriculture is to achieve our shared goals of affordable and accessible food with minimized social and environmental impacts, we need to engage the best and brightest of all of our students across all demographic groups.”
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