Greetings from Washington, D.C.

On Wednesday, college-bound high school seniors including my daughter announced to the world their college destinations. It’s an important milestone in their lives; over the four years past, this high school graduating class of 2019 focused so much effort on realizing their dreams of a great college education that leads to meaningful work. All of the worry, sacrifice, and money spent in SAT or ACT test prep, working with college placement consultants, and out-of-town campus-visit travel, culminated on May 1 in a joyous celebration during which high school corridors filled with rising college freshman donning their new school colors.

But according to a sobering story in yesterday’s New York Times, half of them will, at college, go hungry. The joy I felt for my daughter’s college decision is now tempered with the depressing realization that she will likely know someone—maybe several at her college—who will choose between required textbooks and food.

Student food banks at many institutions, including my alma mater, are now a thing. And the term food insecurity has come to describe a crisis that threatens successful college study and the careers that follow for millions set on entering the American workforce.

According to a 2016 study by the National Student Campaign Against Hunger & Homelessness:

  • 48 percent of college students reported food insecurity in the past month;
  • Food insecurity affects students at both two-year and four-year institutions, with roughly one-quarter of community college students going hungry, and
  • Students of color are disproportionately affected by food insecurity (57 percent).

The study also indicated these critical spillover effects:

  • 56 percent of food-insecure students held a job while attending classes, and, 38 percent of them worked in excess of 20 hours a week;
  • 53 percent indicated missing a class due to hunger while one-quarter dropped a class because of food insecurity, and;
  • 15 percent of food-insecure students experienced homelessness.

Having lived through my daughter’s college admissions experience, I remain dumbfounded by the cost of higher education. Tuition, room, and board at one institution that accepted her for admission priced out north of $62,000. Often, that price is bought-down by grants, scholarships, and other things with the balance remaining paid for out of pocket and through direct student loans. But the net cost of college may still hover north of $30,000 per year. Even with comparatively more affordable institutions in the array, or for some the option of community college enrollment, many students still show up on campus faced with a binary choice:

Do I matriculate or do I eat?

As a retired headhunter, I have seen what happens to executive search candidates who during their lives have experienced some degree of food insecurity; often, out of fear that they will again go hungry, they settle on jobs and careers doing high-risk transactional assignments that offer unlimited upside but at the expense of work-meaningfulness. In the case of the talented sales professionals that I placed, such assignments paid out even if they didn’t love their work (or hated their work and the bosses, peers, and direct-reports on their teams). Still, many of my placements who struggled in school to make ends meet moved on to new work assignments every two years.

But for others, a sense-memory of food insecurity conditioned them to settle their anxious minds onto work assignments that doomed them to suffer physical, mental, and emotional health risks and career upheaval: a pattern of short tenures; workplace dysfunction and toxicity, and; high risk for long-term unemployment or underemployment.

As our guest on The Tightrope with Dan Smolen podcast, workforce performance expert Adrienne Shoch, explained: optimal career performance happens most when “our nervous systems are at ease.” And our nervous systems are more at ease when our hunger is satiated.

To build a sustainable culture for meaningful work, we must fully address and mitigate the food insecurity crisis happening at our institutions of higher learning. Well-fed students, who don’t have to worry about the source of their next meal, will achieve greater success fulfilling their dreams of doing meaningful work—work that is profound, protects the planet, empowers people and communities, and is fun to do—than those who go hungry.

We must commit to feeding well our future talent for meaningful work. And when that happens: our best days lie ahead.

DAN SMOLEN is founder of The Dan Smolen Experience. He is also the executive producer and host of The Tightrope with Dan Smolen podcast. Listen and subscribe to us by keywording “The Tightrope with Dan Smolen” on Apple Podcasts. Also, please rate us and offer suggestions for future guests and topics.

Photo credits: Food Insecurity, iStock Photo; College Bound, Dan Smolen.