'A food desert': College campuses in NM often face food insecurity - Albuquerque Journal

‘A food desert’: College campuses in NM often face food insecurity

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

A food pantry opened officially in October on the Luna Community College campus has quickly become an oasis in a desert for students.

At least that’s been the case for Ashley Wheeler, a senior cosmetology student, and her friends at the campus in Las Vegas, N.M.

While Wheeler herself visits the pantry only occasionally, usually for quick snacks to tide her over until she can leave campus to get food, she said it’s been a big help to her friends – some of whom struggle to afford food.

“I have seen friends that do need food or do need supplies,” she said. “It definitely benefited them … so that they didn’t have to worry about using the little money that they do have for other things.”

As of right now, it’s unclear how many New Mexico college students actually face food insecurity.

Almost a third of University of New Mexico students – and roughly half of both Indigenous and Black students – were found to be food insecure in a 2020 basic needs report.

New Mexico HED Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez (Courtesy of NM Higher Education Department)

Higher Education Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez said those numbers “put a finger on what we’re seeing and what we could potentially see at a statewide level,” but don’t fully capture what’s going on at every institution.

UNM Basic Needs Project principal investigator Sarita Cargas pointed out that community colleges, which tend to serve more low-income students, and institutions with large populations of Black or Indigenous students are likely to see higher rates of student food insecurity.

The holes in statewide data are part of why Cargas and her team are heading up a survey targeted for release in February at 28 institutions to better understand those needs.

She hopes the survey will help lawmakers make more informed decisions about how to fund food insecurity – a problem she thinks is central to the academic success of New Mexico college students.

“The data is only the first step,” she said. “If we’re going to really have equal education for all, we have to help those students who are the most needs-insecure.”

“Food insecure students are the most likely to fail a course and to drop out,” she added.

In the meantime, more than 15,000 students across New Mexico are expected to benefit from $900,000 in grants from the Higher Education Department, set to go out to 15 institutions this month.

In the next legislative session, Rodriguez hopes to secure over twice as much.

The largest grants – $145,000 and $138,000 – are earmarked for Luna and Navajo Technical University, respectively. Both schools have faced significant challenges in recent months and years, stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and wildfires that have raged in and near communities where students live.

The latter is particularly true for Luna students – 75% of whom, according to college officials, live in areas affected by the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, which reached almost 342,000 acres in size earlier this year.

But the college’s food insecurity woes did not begin with the fires, President Edward Martinez said, noting that, when he first started, there was almost no food on campus, save for a few vending machines.

“We do not have a cafeteria for students,” he said. “We were essentially a food desert.”

While it’s not known how many Luna students actually face food insecurity, it’s safe to assume that most do, Allied Health and Public Service Director Carol Linder said, because the problem is prevalent in the college’s surrounding areas.

The college has made some strides in that time, Linder said, including opening the food pantry Wheeler and her friends go to and a community kitchen that students can use to cook groceries they get from such places as a food depot in Las Vegas.

Luna also has a penciled-in partnership between Meals on Wheels and the college to provide some 6,000 free meals to students, using money from the grant.

“It was very important for us to be able to provide some food to our students, so that they can concentrate on their studies rather than concentrate on determining how they’re going to pay for groceries, or when they’re going to eat again,” Martinez said.

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