New Mexico

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

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

At least that was the case with Ashley Wheeler, a senior cosmetology student, and her friends on the Las Vegas, NM campus

While Wheeler herself only visits the pantry occasionally, usually for quick snacks to keep her going until she can leave campus to get food, she said it’s been a big help to her friends — some of whom are having trouble have to afford food.

“I’ve seen friends who need food or… supplies,” she said. “It definitely benefited them … so they didn’t have to worry about spending what little money they have on other things.”

It is currently unclear how many college students in New Mexico are actually food insecure.

Nearly a third of University of New Mexico students — and about half of Indigenous and Black students — were classified as insecure in a 2020 Basic Needs Report.

Higher Education Minister Stephanie Rodriguez said these numbers “show what we’re seeing and what we could potentially see at the statewide level,” but don’t fully capture what’s going on at each 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 gaps in the nationwide data is one of the reasons Cargas and her team are leading a survey to be released in February of 28 institutions to better understand these needs.

She hopes the survey will help lawmakers make more informed decisions about how to fund food insecurity — an issue she says is central to the academic success of New Mexico college students.

“The data is just the first step,” she said. “If we really want to have equal education for all, we have to help the neediest students.”

“Students who are food insecure are the most likely to fall through and drop out of a course,” she added.

Meanwhile, more than 15,000 students across New Mexico are expected to benefit from $900,000 in Department of Higher Education grants, which will be awarded to 15 institutions this month.

Rodriguez hopes to more than double that in the next legislative period.

The largest grants — $145,000 and $138,000 — are earmarked for Luna and Navajo Technical Universities, 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 especially true for Luna students — 75% of whom live in areas affected by the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, which reached nearly 342,000 acres earlier this year, according to college officials.

But the college’s food insecurity didn’t start with the fires, President Edward Martinez said, noting that when he began his tenure there was almost no food on campus, save for a few vending machines.

“We don’t have a cafeteria for students,” he said. “We were basically a food desert.”

While it’s not known how many Luna students are actually food insecure, it’s safe to assume most are, said Carol Linder, director of Allied Health and Public Service, given the problem in the area around the college is widespread.

The college has made some strides in that time, Linder said, including opening the pantry where Wheeler and her friends go and a community kitchen where students can prepare food they get from places like a Las Vegas food depot.

Luna also has a planned partnership between Meals on Wheels and the college to provide students with around 6,000 free meals, using funds from the scholarship.

“For us, it was very important to provide food for our students so they could focus on their studies rather than … settling on how they’re going to pay for their groceries or when they’re going to eat again,” Martinez said.

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