Student regents for the Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR) have been studying the impact of food and housing insecurity at Arizona’s public universities over the past two years, and a recently published report shows that the state has similar rates as national trends and recommended ways to expand the universities’ efforts to address these issues in the long term.
Student regent Nikhil Dave and former student regent Anthony Rusk said the goal for the report was to assess the level of food and housing insecurity at Arizona universities and to understand its impact on students. Food and housing security impacts enrollment, retention and attainment, Dave said.
A Journal of College Student Retention study referenced in the report found that 42.9% of housing-insecure students withdraw or refrain from registering compared to 3.8% of housing-secure students. Food-insecure students were also more likely to withdraw or refrain from registering in class (29.2%) than food-secure peers (4.4%).
Food insecurity refers to having a limited or uncertain ability to access “nutritionally adequate and safe food,’’ according to the report, while housing insecurity includes challenges to paying rent or utilities among others.
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“A lot of the work that’s been done in this space shows that those are two of the biggest drivers behind high levels of student stress and detraction of ability to focus on schoolwork or to manage an academic or personal life,” Dave said.
Rusk said they started with a wider set of basic needs, narrowing it down to food and housing insecurity. The two often overlap and are easy to measure and understand. A work group made up of administrators from the universities was then formed two years ago.
These kinds of insecurities, while present for people at all stages of life, can uniquely affect students' performance in college. Rusk mentioned his and Dave’s experiences growing up in Arizona.
“We love this state and unfortunately Arizona does have a lot of issues with students growing up in impoverished households into this pipeline from being food insecure... Someone who's eligible for free and reduced lunch in high school or in middle school, that issue never really ends in college, it only gets worse,” he said. “….[In college,] a lot of students are forced to make a pretty drastic decision between do I buy food or do I buy textbooks? Do I pay for housing, do I pay for classes? And at the end of the day, you're going to choose from those basic needs. The entire point of this was to affect that.”
The report was based on a series of surveys conducted at Northern Arizona University, Arizona State University and the University of Arizona over the past year that asked about students' ability to afford food and housing.
The report found that 26% of ASU students, 47% of NAU students and 35% of UArizona students reported either low or very low levels of food insecurity.
Very low food insecurity is defined as “disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake,” Rusk said, while low food security is “what people might think about when they think of the college diet, like ramen three times a day.”
At NAU 20% of students reported very low food insecurity, while 27% reported low food security. A quarter of NAU respondents said there had been at least one day they hadn’t eaten in the past year because there wasn’t enough money for food.
The number of students reporting housing insecurity at the universities was lower, yet it followed similar patterns: 14% of ASU students, 19% of NAU students and 8% of UArizona students.
The report also found that food and housing insecurity is also more likely to affect students of color, Rusk said.
The report’s introduction referenced a national survey of college students conducted in the fall of 2019, finding that 39% of respondents were food insecure in the past month and 46% were housing insecure in the past year.
The report concluded by making recommendations to ABOR about ways to address these problems, such as establishing a basic needs committee at each university. The idea is ask questions until a longer-term solution can be found, they said.
"For us, institutionalizing this and creating the infrastructure to where this remains a priority for the board 15 years from now, that's the biggest step towards progress," Dave said.
The recommendations also include developing a communications plan, and using ABOR’s website to explain the universities’ efforts as well as having each university present an annual report on their activities.
The idea is to add “more formality, more structure and more visibility” to the university’s existing basic needs assistance programs, Dave said.
NAU has begun gathering its basic needs services at the Dean of Students Office -- which helps them refer students to the services that will best meet their needs. Assistant Dean of Students Shannon Clark said she was excited to share about the programs offered at NAU.
The Lumberjack Emergency Assistance Fund (LEAF) started in March 2020 and recently exceeded the $500,000 mark in its microloans to students. There are grants of up to $500 that are awarded to students facing a sudden need, to help them take care of their needs in case of emergency. Of these, 119 grants were awarded in the fall 2021 semester.
Clark said these needs often include food and housing.
“This is the way we are starting to take baby steps toward addressing housing insecurity. ...We can turn that cash around really fast to [students] so they can apply it and move on, and start working again toward their studies,” she said.
The other programs are more focused on alleviating food insecurity, such as the campus food pantry, Louie’s Cupboard. The cupboard distributes boxes with meat, produce, and dairy products to students and staff who need it on a biweekly basis, with no qualification requirements, in partnership with the Flagstaff Family Food Center. In the fall semester, the cupboard distributed 2,200 pounds of produce to 580 households (1,500 people). The distributions often also include activities like demonstrations and recipe testing to make the cupboard more welcoming.
“It’s really a vibrant and a fun atmosphere,” Clark said of the Louie’s Cupboard distributions. “That’s been one of our primary goals because we want to make sure that getting food is not...something students should be embarrassed about. We really try to make our distribution a lively atmosphere.”
She, Rusk and Dave all said stigma and knowing how to access resources were the primary barriers to addressing food and housing insecurity among college students.
Among other food security efforts, Clark said that students are also able to pick up nonperishable grab-and-go meals from the Dean of Students office whenever it is open.
NAU started its Meal Swipes for Jacks program last fall for students in need who can receive a mini meal plan (six meals) that's available to use almost as soon as the request is received. The program, which Clark said was in "high demand," has given out a total of 58 meal plans so far.
Clark said that these programs have been able to meet many NAU students' needs and having them in the same basic area helps increase their accessibility. If a student comes in seeking one service, they can be pointed to another that might also help address their needs.
NAU’s case management system is designed with a similar purpose. Most responses to case reports have to do with providing resources or information about on-campus basic needs program. The case management system also helps students apply for other community resources, such as rent support and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The idea is connect students with programs that can help meet their needs.
When asked about her hopes for basic needs programs, Clark said she thought NAU was “headed in the right direction.”
“I would love to have an entire basic-needs center, maybe a couple more social workers on staff," she said. "...A place where students could drop in or make an appointment, and we could connect them not only to our campus resources, but also our community resources. So, just more of what we’re doing."
Dave and Rusk both said they were proud of the efforts happening at ABOR and that they hoped to see them grow in the future.
“It means a lot to me to see that this is happening, because it means that a lot more of the kids that are in high school now that didn't think that they had a chance to go to college, that is becoming a greater option for them. Not a lot of other universities can say that,” Rusk said. “...I’m glad that it's starting to become more of an option for more Arizona natives to go to college to become whatever it is that they want to become and not have to consider socioeconomics.”
More information about NAU’s basic needs services can be found at in.nau.edu/dean-of-students/support-and-programs/.