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Fighting Hunger with Faith

Fighting Hunger with FaithIn his new role as director of faith-based and neighborhood partnerships for the USDA, Tufts graduate Max Finberg hopes to make progress toward ending hunger.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [07.07.09] Max Finberg was born to a Jewish father and a Protestant mother. Without being raised in a specific faith, the 1991 Tufts graduate found his path by reading the Bible.

"By having done that, the more than 2,000 verses that deal with the poor, the hungry, the dispossessed stood out to me as something that if I was going to be for real about my faith, I needed to do something about," he says.

It was at Tufts where he figured out what exactly that would be. During his senior year, he took a class called "Overcoming Global Hunger," where he learned that 40,000 people died everyday from hunger and related causes.

"I said, 'I want to do something about that,'" recalls Finberg, who in May was named director of faith-based and neighborhood partnerships at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Today, he says, that number has declined to 25,000. But Finberg acknowledges there is still much work to be done.

In his new role, he will work to connect USDA resources to community and faith-based groups serving those in need. The post is the culmination of years of work both domestically and abroad to combat hunger-a goal he feels is finally within sight.

"None of this happens overnight, but it really is feasible. We can't end poverty, we don't have a cure for AIDS, but the worst manifestations of hunger we can end," says Finberg, who most recently was director of the nonprofit Alliance to End Hunger. "And that wasn't something I would have been able to say coming out of that course senior year."

Finberg studied political science, international relations and German in the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts, in addition to minoring in peace and justice studies.

"I loved it," recalls Finberg, who met his wife Katherine (A'91) through Tufts Christian Fellowship. "[Tufts] helped me down the path that exposed me to the academic framework to understand foreign policy and global affairs. All of that that has come in very handy as I've traveled the world, worked in the State Department and engaged in trying to alleviate global hunger."

Early in his career, Finberg worked as a senior legislative assistant covering domestic hunger and poverty issues for former U.S. Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio) and worked on the successful passage of The Hunger Relief Act and the Community Solutions Act with a variety of anti-poverty and faith-based organizations. Finberg is also the founding director of the Mickey Leland/Bill Emerson Hunger Fellows Program at the Congressional Hunger Center, formed in 1993.

He then served as special assistant to Hall when the former congressman became ambassador at the U.S. Mission to the UN Agencies for Food and Agriculture in Rome, which works with the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Food Program and the International Fund for Agriculture Development. Finberg also has a master's degree in social ethics from Howard University's School of Divinity.

Did You Know? Finberg joins Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan as recent USDA appointees with Tufts ties. Most recently, Merrigan was an assistant professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment program at the school.  

Aside from outreach to community and faith-based groups, much of Finberg's work at the USDA will deal with school lunch and breakfast programs, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, as well as the Women, Infants and Children program, which Finberg says will help feed one out of every two children born in the U.S. this year.

Part of the challenge, says Finberg, is that communities have varying needs when it comes to addressing hunger. There may be issues of access, income or resource allocation. But the Tufts graduate is confident that progress can be made.

"You see pictures on TV and see statistics and you throw up your hands. I have realized that that's not true, and I've seen that overseas as well as here in the U.S.," says Finberg. "We really can do this."

Hunger is not an unsolvable problem, he explains, but there has to be a commitment at the highest level to addressing the issue.

"The missing ingredient in the recipe to end hunger is political will," he adds. "Having worked for a member of Congress who made hunger his top priority, I saw what a difference one person in a position of leadership could make."

Finberg says that with the current leadership in Washington, that missing ingredient could finally be in place. He notes President Barack Obama's expressed commitment to end childhood hunger in the U.S. by 2015. Does Finberg think this goal can be achieved?

"I do," he says. "It's just a question of making it happen."

While many challenges lie between him and that goal, Finberg says he is well prepared for the task at hand.

"I feel very fortunate to be in a place now where everything I've done from Tufts on has led me to this point," he says. "I feel in exactly the right place at the right time."

Profile by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications

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