Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of articles on food and hunger in Santa Fe.
The face of hunger is often hidden in our midst.
Hidden in places where we least expect to find it — like on college campuses. Professor Sarita Cargas’ 2020 study of hunger at the University of New Mexico reports that 1 in 3 students is “food insecure” — a cruel euphemism for hungry. Specific populations suffer even more: 52 percent of American Indian students at the University of New Mexico experience hunger, along with 46 percent of students who identify as gay or lesbian and 35 percent of Hispanic students. These students are taking great financial risks to pursue a college degree and become part of the middle class. However, it is a struggle to pay for life’s necessities, and often these students have to decide between paying for food or paying for school.
Trinidad, who like many, went to college later in life, is an example of the struggle. He and his wife, Yvonne, were both working, but their combined income was not enough to support their growing family, which included two children. Yvonne had graduated from college, but Trinidad had not attended at all. They decided Trinidad needed to go to college so he could secure a better job, while Yvonne continued working to support the family. She made up a strict weekly budget that included food as well as rent, utilities and other expenses. They bought eggs and milk for the children, and for protein, bought one chicken and a little ground beef a week. The budget was extremely tight but it worked — if nothing went wrong. But things have a way of going wrong, like when the car broke down or when one of the children needed to go to the doctor. Then, the stress and anxiety of trying to make ends meet set in. Trinidad and Yvonne would look at the bills to see if any could be put off. Food was the first to be cut — not for the children but for the adults. The parents skipped meals until Yvonne’s next paycheck came in.
Trinidad and Yvonne “made it.” Today, Trinidad is a registered nurse and diabetic educator; Yvonne is a geriatric social worker. However, even for those who “make it,” the hurdles are high. More than 20 percent of UNM students experienced the double burden of food and housing insecurity, according to an April 2020 survey. Further, the cost of attending college — including tuition, room and board, books and supplies, transportation and miscellaneous expenses — has risen dramatically in the last 20 years and now stands close to $25,000 at UNM (for school year 2020-21), but student aid has not kept pace. To help defray costs, a majority of students work — almost 60 percent — and some also receive financial aid. But even with the additional income, ends often do not meet.
The demands of working on top of school are sometimes overwhelming for students: 53 percent report missing a class and 25 percent report dropping a class. Further, many of these cash-strapped students are forced to do without essential educational supplies, with 55 percent report not being able to buy a required textbook. Not surprisingly, depression often accompanies food insecurity. To help students surmount the almost impossibly high hurdles, colleges and universities are providing some supports for food, but the supports are limited.
To highlight the extreme problems with college hunger, The Food Depot, New Mexico First and Presbyterian Healthcare Services will stream on-demand the documentary Hungry to Learn beginning March 15 through March 28, with a live, virtual conversation between Cargas, UNM and Sherry Hooper, executive director of The Food Depot at 5:30 p.m. March 25. Register and learn more at thefooddepot.org.