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It's World Food Day, So Let's Talk about Hunger at Work

Employers like employees who are hungry for the work. But what if employees are hungry for food because they can't afford to buy enough of it?

Today is World Food Day, which is meant to highlight issues around chronic hunger and food sustainability. World Food Day events are scheduled to take place today in 150 countries.

Roughly one-third of the world's people suffer from some form of malnutrition. Do you know that world hunger has actually increased over the last three years? 820 million people around the world were undernourished last year, and it's getting worse.

Here in the United States, we tend to frame hunger as an educational issue affecting children in school. It's a very valid topic: more than 13 million American children live in "food insecure" homes, according to USDA statistics.

One in six American children simply isn't getting enough to eat at home. Then this child goes off to school, where he or she has a hard time concentrating and has an even harder time doing well academically. They might rely on meals at school to get enough to eat.

What we don't talk about is this: behind every hungry child is a potentially hungry working parent. How many U.S. adults are going to work hungry every day? So hungry that they can't concentrate very well, they don't feel very productive, and they're having a harder time hitting their work goals?

What About the Workers?
It's difficult to find data on the number of U.S. workers who are going hungry on the job. But what we do know is that 40 million Americans are not getting enough to eat, which is a number that dovetails with the 40 million Americans estimated to live in poverty.

If 13 million American kids are going hungry, then we can do the simple math: roughly 27 million Americans over the age of 18 are going hungry every day.

Of course, this number likely includes senior citizens and retired Americans who are living on Social Security checks. But some percentage of these undernourished 27 million American adults are coming into the workplace every day.

From the unpaid interns to the entry-level employee to the underpaid administrative assistant, they quietly work among us and wonder where their next meal will come from.

Spotting the Hungry at Work
There might be some things that give the hungry employee's predicament away. For one, this employee might have told you on the down low how tough it is to get by from month to month. They're always happy when there's a staff luncheon or potluck. They might stock up on a few extra free snacks in the break room every day. They skip lunch, because they don't have one and can't afford to buy one.

And this coworker might be too proud or embarrassed to admit it out loud.

We talk about how great the economy is -- unemployment is low, the job reports look good -- but the cost of living has gotten more expensive in the last six months. I've certainly noticed it. The other day, I filled the gas tank and spent $45 at the pump. Six months ago, I was spending $35 to fill the gas tank in the same car.

That's just one small example, too. Even with coupons and strategic planning -- which I employ with wicked precision -- buying groceries feels more expensive in the last few months. It's not getting cheaper to live, and that's the real problem, hiring statistics be damned.

How to Address the Hunger Problem at Work
What can employers do about hunger in the workplace? First, they can look at the employee's compensation. I understand that the idea of paying a living wage can be controversial and political, but adjusting employee pay even slightly could help alleviate the food insecurity that some employees might be feeling on a daily basis.

Second, employers can keep in mind that they probably have a few employees who are food insecure and feeling the quiet effects of it on the job. Offering free protein-rich snacks in the break room, hosting a weekly catered lunch for staff (pizza day on Friday, etc.), and handing out grocery store gift cards as rewards for a job well done are all subtle ways to address the problem at work.

The holidays can be a particularly hard time of year for food-insecure employees. Employers might hand out grocery gift cards to give hungry employees and their family members a nice Thanksgiving meal, or offer them a big plate of food to take home for the holiday. It's a nice gesture on the employer's part. Pass the cranberry sauce!

I hope this blog post serves as a journalistic appetizer to discussing the quiet hunger of the U.S. worker. It's one thing to see an employee hungry for the work; it's quite another to see an employee literally starving at work. Let's get on this problem and solve it together. Because we can if we try.


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