A survey conducted by a team of researchers from The University of New Mexico finds that students who are food-insecure are more likely to fail or withdraw from classes or drop out of college entirely.
The survey was done by lead author Heather Mechler, UNM Office of Institutional Analytics; Kathryn Coakley, UNM Department of Individual, Family, and Community Education; co-PI Marygold Walsh-Dilley, Department of Geography; and co-PI Sarita Cargas, Honors College.
Their findings were recently published in the Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice in an article entitled Examining the Relationship Between Food Insecurity and Academic Performance: Implications for Diversity and Equity in Higher Education.
This article is an outcome of the larger UNM Basic Needs Project, which is co-led by Cargas and Walsh-Dilley. Mechler is a critical part of the team since students are surveyed through her office and she also is able to link survey responses to student academic outcomes. Coakley brings expertise on nutrition and public health, and is especially helpful for survey design and data analysis. Cargas is an important liaison with UNM administration and with policymakers, and works to develop solutions. Walsh-Dilley leads the qualitative data collection efforts and is involved in data analysis.
This study shows that food insecurity is a strong impediment to some students’ ability to succeed academically, Mechler emphasized.
“When you are not eating enough and you are experiencing anxiety about how you’re going to afford to feed yourself, you don’t have much energy or focus left to devote to studying and going to class. Our analysis showed that if you have two students from the same background with the same personal characteristics, where one student is food secure and the other food insecure, the student who is experiencing food insecurity is twice as likely to leave college and over one-and-a-half times as likely to fail or withdraw from a course,” Mechler observed.
Attaining a college degree can lead to many opportunities for a better, healthier, and more fulfilling life, she continued, adding, “However, it is disheartening that some students are locked out of these opportunities because they lack stable access to affordable nutrition.”
The study is unique in that they included students pursuing graduate and professional degrees in the survey. Most of the research on food insecurity in higher education focuses on undergraduate students, but a significant number of students in these higher-level programs struggle with food insecurity.
“For the most part, there is a lower prevalence of food insecurity in graduate and professional students compared to undergraduate students, but it was higher than we had anticipated,” Mechler noted.
“This research is really important because it helps to address educational inequality. Our research finds that the students most affected by food and housing insecurity are minority students, LGBTQ+ students, international students, student parents or those providing care for dependents,” Walsh-Dilley said. “When students struggle to satisfy their basic needs, they are already at a disadvantage and are less likely to be successful academically. This is how inequality becomes reproduced over and over again. But, if we can support low-income students so that they are successful through college, then maybe we can break that cycle.”
In the students’ own words
Many students spoke about the stress they experience due to food or housing insecurity.
“I had never been that food insecure and the stress of… it’s not just stress, it’s like panic. I don’t know where I’m going to live after these three months. I hope this job works out. I don’t have money for food. Like yeah, panic. Being able to focus on school and being able to focus on my kids and be emotionally and mentally present for them was, in my experience… I mean, it was very difficult. It just saps all of your attention. It takes all of your mental energy.”
“[Basic needs insecurity] impacts greatly in terms of stress. I mean, it’s hard to study when you are like OK, when is the next shoe going to drop? Let’s leave it at that. I don’t want to sound too depressing but it is a major impact… So, that has a huge impact on studying and on being able to concentrate and wondering which shoe is going to drop. So, that’s a big one.”
Students often spoke about how the stress and anxiety of food and housing insecurity impacted their academic success.
“I mean, definitely it’s a source of anxiety, right? It’s a source of stress. It’s a source of constant worry. I know for me, I don’t perform very well academically or just living life if I’m under constant stress or constant anxiety… During that semester where I had to really be aware of how I was spending my money, it was a tough semester. I think I dropped down to just two classes or like six credit hours. I don’t even think I did very well in one of them. So, I think I took one of them for credit/no credit. So yeah, I mean just a constant source of anxiety. That’s definitely going to have an effect on your performance in terms of school and in terms of your mental health and your physical health and your relationships with friends or family. So yeah, it’s not going to have a positive impact. That’s for sure.”
“I had to drop out of college the first time due to the insecurities.”
One student summed it up thus:
“I mean, it’s kind of hard to study when you are hungry.”
The research continues. Mechler said they conducted another survey in April 2021, and are holding focus groups with students this Fall semester to learn more about how students experience food and housing insecurity.
“Our plan is to survey students each year, perhaps including other institutions in New Mexico to get more insight into how food insecurity differs by student population and location of the institution. We want to bring more understanding and awareness to the issue of college student food insecurity so that leaders and policy makers can address it,” she said.
What can be done to help?
Many things can be done to help food insecure students. To start, Mechler said, faculty members can add language to their syllabi about resources available to students who need support with food, housing, and other necessities of life.
“Just mentioning it can normalize the act of getting assistance, and can help destigmatize the experience of food insecurity. Many students who are food insecure don’t realize that there’s a term for what they’re going through, and may feel ashamed that they don’t have the resources to go out with friends for a meal, grab a coffee before class, or buy sufficient groceries. By putting a name to an experience, you can help someone feel less alone,” she noted.
Staff members can keep a list of resources at UNM and in the broader community that can help students find supplemental food, assistance with SNAP (food stamps) applications, and other supports.
“Navigating many of these systems can be intimidating, so having a trusted ally guiding you can make all the difference,” Mechler observed.
Also, students can engage in research, class projects, or service learning opportunities that explore why people experience food insecurity, structural barriers that prevent people from getting help, and how they can change systems and processes to make sure everyone has access to the things they need. Mechler advised that students can help struggling friends or classmates by urging them to visit the Lobo Food Pantry or another food pantry and go with them to show support. Also, volunteers are needed to help operate the pantry, organize shelves, or stock incoming items.
Everyone can donate to the Lobo Food Pantry with financial contributions, she added, or by donating shelf-stable food, hygiene, and toiletry items directly to the pantry. The Lobo Food Pantry is open to all UNM students, regardless of financial need, and is open for a few hours every day during the week.
“The Dean of Students and the staff with LoboRespect have really done a fantastic job in securing resources for the pantry and being responsive to student needs. They are adding a refrigerator soon, which will expand the types of foods that they can offer. This is an extremely worthy cause to support with your time and resources,” Mechler said. “It’s inspiring to see how much good can result when people care about others and commit to helping them. Through this project, I have met people from all over the UNM community who are doing great work in this area. They all truly believe that every student deserves the chance to succeed.”
The team will continue to work on this project, collecting data to see how these trends shift over time, and using these data to raise awareness and encourage the university and local and state policy makers to support food and housing security among students, Walsh-Dilley said, adding that several other manuscripts are under review and they are developing additional research about how to intervene to support students and how to extend this type of data collection at other New Mexico institutions.
“These findings make clear that food and housing insecurity significantly impacts student academic success,” Walsh-Dilley said. “Access to food and housing are matters of educational inclusion and equity and we need to prioritize student basic needs if we care about addressing inequality among our students and our state.”
For more information about the UNM Basic Needs Project, see the website.