Geography professor seeks to build interdisciplinary connections on campus through food

Hepner Hall at San Diego State University, where Pascale
Joassart-Marcelli is a professor. Photo credit: Lauren J. Mapp

As a child — and even during her early days as an academic — San Diego State geography professor Pascale Joassart-Marcelli wasn’t necessarily thinking about spending her career studying food, but it was always a large part of her life. 

She grew up picking strawberries from her neighbor’s farm in Belgium during the summer, learned how to cook from her mother and even attempted to grow a garden, without much success for the latter, she said.

“When I was about 10 years old or something, I decided that we needed to have a garden,” Joassart-Marcelli said. “My parents did not know anything about gardening, so we had no idea what we were doing. I just remember that I was planting carrots in the garden and I would go pull out the carrots, and then I’d look ‘oh, they’re too small,’ and I would put them back in, and that just didn’t work too well.”

Food has been an integral part of her life ever since, and she continues to share her journey to find different types of food in traveling and cooking with her husband Enrico Marcelli, a sociology professor at SDSU, and their two sons. Inspired by various cuisines from her travels around the globe, Joassart-Marcelli applies the lessons she has learned from international food communities to her teaching at SDSU.

As a way to merge the concepts of food and geographical research together, she designed a “Geography of Food” course as an explorations course for SDSU. The course uses geography as a lens to look at the food system, discussing the production, distribution, consumption and preparation of food, according to an article from the SDSU Newscenter.

Unlike nutrition classes that are offered at SDSU, her “Geography of Food” course discusses the environmental impact of modern food systems and focuses on the political-economic, cultural and social aspects of food.

Sustainable agriculture educator Lorraine Gray, executive director of Four Bridges Traveling Permaculture Institute, advocates for teaching courses about the environmental implications of the American food system. In her opinion, courses like Joassart-Marcelli’s can help students to make healthy choices that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

“Everyone should know where their food comes from,” Gray said. “Food is medicine and healthy food choices will prevent medical issues and dependency on chemical medicine later in life. It is like a natural insurance policy for your health.”

After several years teaching the “Geography of Food” and seeing the enrollment grow from 11 students in its first semester to a high of 120 students, Joassart-Marcelli said she is now in the process of creating a food studies minor for SDSU. If approved, the minor will be an interdisciplinary education based on various aspects of food.

Joassart-Marcelli earned her bachelor’s and master’s economics degrees from Facultés Universitaires Notre-Dame de la Paix in Belgium, according to her Geography department profile.

Her first experience in the United States was as an exchange student, and she enjoyed it so much that she returned to attend the University of Southern California as a doctoral student. During her time at USC, she was focusing on the political economy and public policy when she first became interested in how interdisciplinary the field of geography can be, she said.

“Over time, I started taking classes in geography and I kind of fell in love with it,”  Joassart-Marcelli said. “I liked that it was very interdisciplinary, which is something that I always appreciate, that it paid attention to environmental factors, to the physical environment and also to culture, economic factors and social issues.”
The more she studied geography, the more she realized how to use the discipline to solve a variety of societal issues.

“I think it’s a useful way to understand many contemporary problems, but also to think about solutions, because the focus on specific places often helps you think about communities and key actors,” Joassart-Marcelli said.

Initially, Joassart-Marcelli focused on geographic issues like immigration, low wage jobs and the role of non-profit organizations. Food was incorporated into her academic studies within the last 10 years, when she started reading books like Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal.”

“This is really something that is important to study — it’s not just something to enjoy when you travel or to enjoy as a hobby,” Joassart-Marcelli said. “Because I was a geographer, I felt that food was such a great material for geographers because it really does make you think about the environmental issues, the cultural issues, the social issues, so it’s just a wonderful medium to me to think geographically.”

In addition to the “Geography of Food,” Joassart-Marcelli also teaches courses on the “Geography of Cities,” “Geography of Poverty,” “Economic Geography,” and a seminar on “Rethinking the Economy,” according to her SDSU profile.

She is currently teaching a course that focuses on community-based geographic research and food justice. Through the course, students are working with the Good Food District in Southeast San Diego, she said.

Geography professor Fernando J. Bosco, who studies the connection between food and place in an urban environment, started studying food when he met Joassart-Marcelli. Before meeting her, he focused more on political activism in urban communities, but he has since found connections between activism and food, he said.

“Food has become, in my view, a new nexus for activism in urban areas,” Bosco said. “There’s a lot of questions to ask about inequality, about the urban environment and about cities that can be examined through the lens of food.”

Along with Bosco, she edited and released a compilation of papers titled “Food and Place: A Critical Exploration” in December 2017. The pair wrote a chapter together for the book called “Space of Alternative Food,” which looks at farmers markets, urban agriculture and community gardens.

The book will be used as a text for future “Geography of Food” classes, Joassart-Marcelli said.

Bosco and Joassart-Marcelli also wrote a chapter together in the recently published “Just Green Enough” about gentrification and racism involved with farmers markets, according to The Daily Mail.

Another one of their collaborations was the “Food, Ethnicity and Place” project, funded by the National Science Foundation, Bosco said. Components of the study took place in Little Italy, Southeastern San Diego and City Heights.

Because of her creativity and dedication to research, Bosco said he is inspired by Joassart-Marcelli and believes that she is a contributing factor to the success of their work together.

“She is a tireless researcher who always has new ideas,” Bosco said. “I would say it’s also energizing to work with her because there’s always some new avenue that we want to explore, and she’s willing to go in a new path or expand on an idea.”

In addition to working with a fellow professor, Joassart-Marcelli also advises students, including doctoral candidate Blaire O’Neal.

O’Neal is studying food justice and urban agriculture for her dissertation. While searching for programs to attend as a doctoral student, she chose SDSU because of the energy and enthusiasm exhibited by Joassart-Marcelli, she said.

Describing her as warm, confident, humble and strong, O’Neal said she admires Joassart-Marcelli as a professor.
“She’s so intelligent, she really always has something interesting to add to any conversation she’s in,” O’Neal said. “She’s just so well-rounded in terms of knowledge.”

While studying food policy under Joassart-Marcelli, O’Neal said she has been able to learn how you connect various parts of a culture through geographical research.

“Food is a great lens for teaching people how to think critically and how to examine issues from both a global and local perspective,” O’Neal said. “I think food allows you to teach so many different things at once.”

O’Neal also believes Joassart-Marcelli pays her success forward to her students, helping them to achieve academic goals.

“They say that when you get to the top, and you’ve had all this privilege and you’re in this really powerful position, what you should do is turn around and help others,” O’Neal said. “I feel like you have that with Pascale. She’s turning around and lifting people up like there’s plenty of room.”

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