Startling new research by a team of professors from The University of New Mexico revealed that many UNM students may not be getting their food and housing needs met. This week, the UNM Basic Needs Project released its 2020 research report Basic Needs Insecurity at UNM that shows both food and housing insecurity prevalence are higher among students than in the broader population of New Mexico.

Professor Marygold Walsh-Dilley

The project was led by professors Sarita Cargas of the Honors College and Marygold Walsh-Dilley of the Geography and Environmental Studies department. Research team members were Ann V. Murphy, Philosophy (Solutions team co-PI); Heather Mechler, Office of Institutional Analytics; Kathryn Coakley, Individual, Family & Community Education (Nutrition & Dietetics); Shoshana Adler Jaffe, Behavioral Measurement & Population Sciences Shared Resource; Amy Neel, Department of Speech & Hearing Sciences; Karen Patterson, Anderson School of Management; Kristina Yu, School of Architecture & Planning; Ryan Gregg, Admissions Department; Shannon Roberson Wildenstein, Center for Digital Learning; and Rene Koehler, Center for Digital Learning.

This project brings together faculty, staff, and community members with the goal of improving the food and housing security of UNM students through research, data collection, and advocacy.

The full report and other information are available on the UNM Basic Needs Project website. The report highlights the results of a survey.

The research team surveyed UNM students in April, inviting the participation of a representative sample of 12,000 UNM students, with 2,695 responding, representing a 22.5 percent response rate.

“In our study, 17 percent of respondents reported very low food security, suggesting that they may be experience hunger during some times in the previous month.”

- Professor Marygold Walsh-Dilley

Professor Sarita Cargas

Findings from the survey show that nearly one in three UNM students were food insecure, while over 40 percent were housing insecure some time in the previous year. Walsh-Dilley noted that this is much higher than the population at large. In contrast, 11 percent of U.S. households and 16 percent of New Mexico households were food insecure in 2018.

Walsh-Dilley outlined what food and housing insecurity means.

Students who are food insecure have limited or uncertain access to nutritionally adequate or safe foods or the inability to adequate food in a socially acceptable manner.

“They are not necessarily going hungry, but they aren’t sure if they will have enough money for food, they worry about their ability to access food, or they make choices that might limit their variety or nutritional quality of their food because they worry they won’t have money to buy more,” she explained. However, food insecurity also includes students with “very low food security” who do experience a disruption of eating patterns or a reduction in their food intake, potentially resulting in hunger.

“In our study, 17 percent of respondents reported very low food security, suggesting that they experienced hunger during some time in the previous month,” Walsh-Dilley added.

Housing insecurity is the limited or uncertain availability of or access to safe, stable, adequate, or affordable housing.

“Similar to food insecurity, housing insecurity includes a broad set of challenges including the inability to or uncertainty about paying rent, the need to move frequently, couch-surfing, or doubling up with others for financial reasons, or staying in a motel or campground because alternative accommodations are not affordable,” she noted, adding, “It can include, but is not restricted to homelessness, or the lack of an adequate nighttime residence.”

Student Resources

The report also highlights how food and housing insecurity varies across demographic groups. Undergraduate students have a higher prevalence of food and housing insecurity than graduate students. Students of color, especially Native American students, are more likely to experience food and housing insecurity. LGBTQ students are also more likely to experience food and housing insecurity.

“Our research finds that students with dependents are somewhat more likely to experience food insecurity than students who don’t have dependents. But not all students who experience food and housing insecurity have families,” Walsh-Dilley remarked.

The survey was done in April, coinciding with the early stages of the COVID-19 shutdown at UNM and around the country so researchers don’t know the full extent the shutdown had on the survey results.

“We think that there was probably some impact of COVID on student responses, but we don’t know that magnitude of or shape of this effect… Many students lost their jobs, which could have had an effect even at that early stage,” Walsh-Dilley observed. “One element that is unique to the university is that UNM closed campus housing – meaning that students lost access to both housing and their meal plans.

"We know that this was especially challenging for international students, who were not able to go home since international travel was limited but who did not necessarily have familial or personal networks in Albuquerque that likely supported local students at that time. We see that nearly half of international students reported housing insecurity, and we anticipate that the pandemic was an important factor there. We will be able to examine the effect of the pandemic more during our qualitative research this fall.”

Walsh-Dilley said the patterns identified in this study raise important questions about the role of basic needs insecurity in reproducing educational inequality. For instance, the study finds that students who experience food insecurity have lower GPAs and are more likely to withdraw from courses.

“This research is important because it helps us to identify some of the barriers that get in the way of students achieving their best academic outcomes. If we can support the food and housing security of students, we are helping to support them in terms of their educational outcomes as well,” Walsh-Dilley observed.

The Basic Needs Project plans to continue its work with qualitative research to better understand how these patterns work, and, pending funding, annual surveys on basic needs. It is also developing strategies and recommendations for how UNM can support the basic needs security of its students and is also building a state-wide network to help support college and university students across the state. In the meantime, in-kind and financial donations to the underfunded Lobo Food Pantry will support the food security of students right now.