Startling research in 2020 by a team from The University of New Mexico revealed that many UNM students were not getting their food and housing needs met. The research report Basic Needs Insecurity at UNM showed both food and housing insecurity prevalence are higher among students than in the broader population of New Mexico. The study indicated that as many as 6,000 UNM students experienced food insecurity and nearly two-fifths were housing insecure.
This year, led by principal investigator Sarita Cargas of the UNM Honors College, the team of faculty and students will begin a year-long study that researches these insecurities at a statewide level.
Starting Wednesday, Feb. 15, through March 1, student, faculty, or staff can help collect more information on this problem by taking the Human Rights Survey. It is the first-in-the-nation statewide study to assess the prevalence of food and housing insecurity among everyone — faculty, staff, and students — in public higher education institutions in New Mexico, funded by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Food Initiative and the Higher Education Department.
The Basic Needs Project, in conjunction with the New Mexico Higher Education Department and alongside Food, Farm and Hunger Initiative, will study the prevalence of basic needs insecurity across 28 of New Mexico’s public colleges and universities, according to the project’s website.
It is the creation of an interdisciplinary research team of UNM faculty, staff, and students from the Honors College, Nutrition, Population Health, Anderson, and Law Schools. Student, staff, and faculty participation will help produce evidence regarding the health of the higher education workforce and reveal additional information concerning food and housing insecurity among our students, not just at UNM but within higher education across the state. The data will be used to inform the Basic Needs Grand Challenge and the creation of evidence-based interventions.
“We are assessing the prevalence of food insecurity, homelessness, and housing insecurity, assessment of some mental health issues, access to transportation, and their associations with demographic factors such as race and ethnicity, gender, and which school participants attend,” Cargas explained.
Survey topics include food security, housing security, mental health, transportation access, and participant recommendations for solutions. The survey takes about 10 minutes and participants are completely anonymous.
Cargas urged any current student, faculty, or staff (full-time or part-time) at a NM public college or university can participate. She added that 16- and 17-year-old dual enrolled students may also participate.
After the survey closes, the team will analyze the data in the spring and conduct a Data Reveal and Next Steps event on May 5 where they will share some of the initial findings. The next step will be to write reports and articles disseminating the data, as well as publish it on the data visualization tool Tableau.
“The real work begins on May 6th when we use the data to initiate changes,” Cargas remarked.
Cargas noted that 40 percent of students who start college in New Mexico do not finish. The UNM research also found that 42 percent of undergraduates were food insecure in 2020.
"...If you extrapolate from our data, about 6,000 undergrads were food insecure, with about 3,000 skipping meals while trying to learn.”
- Professor Sarita Cargas
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has two levels of food insecurity: low and very low food secure. Cargas noted. “Low food secure have enough calories, just maybe not nutritious ones. Very low secure experience hunger and they skip meals. Both groups experience stress about having enough food. More than half of our students in 2020 were ‘very low food secure.’ So, if you extrapolate from our data, about 6,000 undergrads were food insecure, with about 3,000 skipping meals while trying to learn.”
“There is sometimes a perception that college students are a privileged bunch,” Cargas said. “About 80 percent of students across the nation work. A good percentage work full time. It is stressful and hard to work a paying job and go to school. This research has taught me how courageous our students are. It is incredibly challenging for many to stay in school and graduate. Many experience hunger or a lack of nutritional food while pursuing higher education. They deserve our support.”
There is an incredible amount of stigma surrounding basic needs insecurity, according to Cargas. “Students mostly suffer in silence and sometimes think it is a personal failing. If tens of thousands of students across New Mexico suffer needs insecurity, it’s a systemic problem requiring systemic solutions.”
Cargas added that though college has long been considered lean years for students, the situation is worse for today’s students.
“The Pell Grant used to cover 80 percent of tuition and expenses,” she said. “Today it covers less than a third of tuition. Federal funding has lessened and now students and families are asked to foot the bill for school, unlike after World War II when it was considered a public good to require public funding to have an educated citizenry. There has been a shift in attitude about who should pay for an education and our students are suffering from that change in support.”
Cargas contends that supporting basic student needs would be “a fabulous return on investment. If we helped hundreds of more students graduate, it would be good for institutional bottom lines, as well as benefit the state workforce. We hope institutions start to support basic needs security in the same way they support academic achievement with tutoring services.”
“This study will help us understand some of the causes,” Cargas said. “The study also asks for participants’ opinions about what their institution can do to ameliorate needs insecurity because we believe the people most affected by the problems need to have their say.”
In most countries, food and shelter for students are seen as a human right, Cargas observed. “The human rights of too many students in New Mexico are not being met. And the right to education is affected as well. The goal of this survey is to help alleviate the food insecurity issue on college campuses.”
Questions about the survey can be directed to Cargas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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