09/25/2013 11:01 am ET Updated Nov 25, 2013

Ending Hunger in our Communities: The Community College Role

In addition to educating students, community colleges forge deep and meaningful connections with our community. After all, it's a central part of our mission. At Montgomery College, "we empower our students to change their lives, and we enrich the lives of our community." As of this month, that includes a pledge to help fight hunger in our community.

Montgomery College joined with local Montgomery County and nonprofit leaders, private sector partners, and advocates in support of a project that will enrich both our students and community -- by supporting the creation of a countywide food recovery program.

What is food recovery? It is collecting unused, edible food and distributing it to nonprofit providers who serve those in need in our community. As one advocate noted, "we don't have a food shortage problem, we have a food distribution problem."

The inspiration for Montgomery County's effort came from University of Maryland students Ben Simon and Mia Zavalij, who found that more than 60,000 pounds of food annually were going to waste at their campus. They founded the Food Recovery Network to donate this food to local homeless shelters, food banks, and soup kitchens.

Inspired by their work, Montgomery County Councilmember Valerie Ervin brought a variety of county partners together to develop recommendations on how to create what may be the nation's first countywide food recovery program. For despite pockets of affluence in our suburban Maryland county, Montgomery County has one in three students attending county public schools who qualify for a free or reduced price lunch (32.3 percent). Manna Food Center found that each month there are thousands of county residents relying on emergency food programs to put food on the table for their families, an indication of the poverty that exists in our community.

Other suburban communities like ours may encounter a similar need for food support. As a Brookings report found, suburbia is now home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in the country and more than half of the metropolitan poor.

Why is our community college involved in this effort to fight hunger? Because as a college, we understand that the food that fuels bodies also fuels minds. Our job at Montgomery College is to empower students to change their lives. That gets harder if students are going hungry, as a hungry student is a distracted learner. A parent worried about putting food on the table is less likely to worry about getting biology homework done. If we are to live up to the promise of higher education, we must engage in the battle to end hunger in our community. And we must succeed or the very future of our students is at risk.

But it's not just about our students. We also believe deeply that we are the community's college -- that we are here to enrich the life of our entire community.

American philosopher and activist Cornel West once said, "Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public." I love that all of us -- committed individuals and organizations large and small -- can come together and make a difference in the life of a neighbor. Our effort here at Montgomery College will start with donating our excess food to our community. We will be partnering with our food contractor, Chartwells, to make this happen.

I am also thrilled that Ben Simon, the student founder of the University of Maryland's Food Recovery Network, is mentoring Montgomery College students interested in forming their own chapter of the network. Our food contractor is eager to work with Ben and the students to make their vision a reality.

I have tremendous admiration for young people like Ben who remain eager to encourage more students and communities to take up the mantle of ending hunger. Because the more activists who join this movement, the more we live our mission, serving both our community and our efforts to bolster student success.

That's meeting the core of our mission as a community college.