University of New Mexico senior Blake Hautzinger had heard the jokes about eating a lot of ramen in college. But they didn’t seem the type who would need to worry: The child of college educated parents who paid for tuition and fees to subsidize a scholarship, whose GPA never dipped below 3.5, and a member of the UNM Honors College. But Hautzinger ended up donating plasma twice weekly to afford groceries and then working 20 to 30 hours a week in a shop, scheduling classes and study around their job.
Hautzinger, a junior majoring in History with a minor in Psychology, was one of three UNM students who told their stories of being hungry or housing insecure to the College Basic Needs in New Mexico Data Sharing Symposium last week on the University campus. Among the attendees were UNM President Garnett Stokes, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Higher Education Deputy Secretary Patricia Trujillo, a representative from Sen. Ben Ray Lujan’s office, and leaders from the 27 colleges and universities across New Mexico that participated in the Basic Needs Survey.
Led by principal investigator Sarita Cargas, an associate professor at the UNM Honors College, the team of faculty and students conducted a year-long study that researched food and housing insecurities at almost every college or university in the state. The statewide survey followed an earlier survey of UNM students only.
“What we want to fix we must first measure,” Cargas told the symposium audience, but some of the survey results left her and her team “heartsick.”
The survey showed that almost 60 percent of New Mexico students recently faced food or housing insecurity, according to results released Friday by the UNM Basic Needs Project team, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham Food Initiative, and the New Mexico Higher Education Department. A shocking 67 percent of those surveyed experienced some sort of basic needs insecurity: food insecurity in the month prior to being surveyed or housing insecurity or homelessness in the prior 12 months.
There are two levels of food insecurity according to the USDA, Cargas explained: low food security and very low food security. In all four categories of respondents — faculty, staff, graduate, and undergraduate students — there is more very low food security than low.
“This means we have people skipping meals and possibly losing weight because of lack of food. I find that utterly shocking. Not all food insecurity is hunger, but very low means hunger right here in my classroom,” Cargas said.
“Hunger is often framed as being character-building for college students. The image of the starving student is too often dismissed as a normal rite of passage, but it is an unacceptable reality. Students pursue higher education as a means to escape from poverty, to better themselves, and to contribute to their communities, but many are doing so at the cost of their health. While the results are distressing, I am hopeful that this study will light the path forward for making meaningful progress on this issue,” Trujillo said.
For Hautzinger, the ramen joke became a reality.
“Eventually it felt like I worked and did school on the side, not the other way around. I watched my friends, all in different situations, from varying social classes, struggle. I watched as we all started resorting to eating more unhealthy food, and eating less in general, to save what scraps of money you did get,” they told the audience.
UNM senior Cassandra Huneau told a similar story of the struggle for food, as well as being homeless, currently living in a house with unsafe conditions, and having her car stolen. Getting adequate food is a challenge and she and her friends suffer from hunger and fatigue, sometimes falling asleep as they study. Despite the obstacles, Huneau is graduating this semester with a degree in liberal arts and going on for a master’s degree in Geography in California.
Student Miles Cargas — Professor Cargas’s nephew — also related his struggle with hunger. He usually ate one meal a day, knowing he would eat Sunday dinner at home.
“I was not able to plan or study given food uncertainty. I felt stressed,” he said, recalling how he vomited after only having coffee and a banana and studying all day and night before.
The younger Cargas eventually found out about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP. He encountered obstacles applying including navigating the website and meeting a 20-hour weekly work requirement, but once he received the regular monthly amount for food, “I was locked in. I could plan and focus beyond one day. I ate regularly and healthy. It made me a student.”
When he graduates with a master’s degree in Public Health Education, Miles plans to help future students learn to navigate the system to receive these benefits.
The Basic Needs Project studied the prevalence of basic needs insecurity across 27 of New Mexico’s public colleges and universities. The survey had responses from 15,239 students, faculty, and staff, a response rate of 16 percent.
Among the data points revealed were:
Sixty-seven percent of the individuals who completed the survey experienced some form of basic needs insecurity. Black and Indigenous students tended to have higher rates of food insecurity.
- Students, 60 percent
- Faculty, 37 percent
- Staff, 40 percent
- Students, 63 percent
- Faculty, 46 percent
- Staff, 50 percent
- Students, 18 percent
- Faculty, 17 percent
- Staff 11, percent
The data will be used to inform the Basic Needs Grand Challenge and the creation of evidence-based interventions, Cargas said.
The survey was the first statewide study in the country to include faculty and staff, Cargas noted, adding, “Gathering the data about basic needs insecurity is surely the first step required for addressing the problems of our colleagues who struggle… The Basic Needs Survey and UNM data-sharing summit were gratifying because we learned how many caring people are working on the front lines addressing student needs throughout the state. There was so much energy in the room at the summit because of all the people on fire about figuring out the next steps. The data has presented us a huge opportunity.”
But the results are also deeply disturbing, she observed. The data revealed that students who are food insecure have lower grade point averages and are more likely to drop out of school.
“Behind these numbers is real human suffering. It exposes us to the fact that hunger in the US is real and it’s even in our classrooms here in New Mexico,” Cargas said. “This data should help dispel myths about the privileged college student. Is it a privilege to experience the constant anxiety of holding down a job with a boss who may not be sensitive to your school schedule or your need to study? Is it a privilege to have to make tradeoffs between taking an extra shift and your job or studying?”
Solving food insecurity is possible, Cargas believes, noting, “We could feed everyone. And the return in investment would be profound for New Mexico if we could increase graduation rates.”
“As educators and administrators, we understand that meeting the educational needs of our students is about more than providing a world-class academic experience. We know that food and shelter are also basic educational needs – and that when our students are food or housing insecure, it can lead to lower grades, poor health, and less engagement with campus life and campus services,” Stokes said. “It is our hope that leaders will use the data from this report to devise evidence-based approaches for meeting the food and housing needs not just of students, but also of faculty and staff at colleges and universities across the state. Their basic needs reflect our basic needs as institutions of higher education, and this statewide study will help all of us to better understand and respond to their experiences.”
“When we feed our children, we feed our future,” Lujan Grisham summarized.
Photo, from left to right: UNM associate professor Sarita Cargas, Higher Education Deputy Secretary Dr. Patricia Trujillo, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, UNM President Garnett Stokes, and New Mexico Higher Education Department Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez.