Margaretville native Max Finberg named to Obama administration post

By Julia Green
In 1988, Max Finberg was walking the hallways of Margaretville Central School, preparing to graduate and head to Tufts University near Boston. Now, 21 years later, he’s walking the streets of Washington, D.C., as the newest appointee to a post within the Obama administration. Finberg, the son of Mike and Joanne Finberg of Margaretville, was recently named Director of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In his role with the Department of Agriculture, Finberg’s primary responsibility will be supporting the president and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in reaching out to faith-based and neighborhood groups.
“For example,” Finberg said in an interview Tuesday, “connecting faith-based and nonprofit groups with the economic recovery, especially in rural America. Second, President Obama has committed to ending childhood hunger in the United States by the year 2015. There are almost 13 million kids here in the U.S. who are threatened by hunger. Nobody’s starving here, not like the images we see from Ethiopia or elsewhere, but we can see this in Margaretville and in the Catskills, where you might not have enough food over the weekend so you’re looking forward to school breakfast come Monday, or you don’t have much at the end of the month. So President Obama has made a commitment to ending this and Secretary Vilsack has taken that commitment as one of his own, so my job will be helping them reach out and partner with faith-based groups to make that happen.”
Another task Finberg will face will deal more with the international aspect of things, particularly as it relates to religious dialogue.
Finberg’s interest in global issues traces back to his childhood and the various cultures to which he was exposed at a young age. As a seventh-grader, he traveled to England when his father served as a Fulbright exchange teacher. At 15, he traveled to Israel with his uncle to learn about both the Jewish and Christian sides of his religious heritage. As a high school junior, he studied abroad in Germany. All experiences, he said, that opened his eyes to a world beyond his own.
“It showed me that the world was a broader place,” he said. “Growing up in the Catskills, there are a lot who don’t get out much, don’t have exposure to other folks, but at Margaretville there were always exchange students and that sparked in me a desire to see the world outside Route 28 and Route 30.”
Finberg added that his travels, which have taken him to over 50 countries around the globe, have also instilled in him a sense of responsibility to the global community.
“What we have in America is a wonderful blessing, and trying to show that to others is a wonderful thing,” he said. “We can’t feed everybody, but we can surely be a leader, given all that we’ve been given.”
Upon graduating from Margaretville, Finberg headed to Tufts University just outside Boston, where he studied political science, international relations and German with aspirations to ultimately work in politics and public service.
He relocated to the nation’s capital, where he completed a year-long internship with the International Foundation, an organization directed at providing assistance to the developing world, and then spent 12 years working with then-Congressman Tony Hall, who started the nonprofit Congressional Hunger Center, helping create a leadership development program to train leaders in helping fight hunger.
Finberg then returned to the academic world, pursuing graduate study in social ethics at the Howard University School of Divinity in Washington. Following his graduate work, he returned to Congressman Hall’s congressional office to do legislative work around hunger and poverty.
“Then,” Finberg said, “it got really cool. [Hall] got appointed to be the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations agencies that deal with hunger. They’re based in Rome, Italy, and he asked me to go with him. My wife, Kate, and I arrived two weeks before our first anniversary, so it was like an extended honeymoon.”
Finberg’s role as a foreign service officer in the state department lasted from 2002 to 2005, after which he returned to Washington to become the first director of the Alliance to End Hunger, a small, nonprofit that engages diverse institutions in the will to end hunger.
Then, last week, he returned to life as a civil servant in President Obama’s administration.
Finberg had done some volunteer work on then-Senator Obama’s campaign in connecting Hall to the campaign and working with a group called the Matthew 25 Network, which was reaching out to religious voters especially.
“I got to work with a couple of folks on the campaign who then ended up in President Obama’s administration, one at the White House and one here at the Department of Agriculture,” Finberg said. “And so ,in talking with them and talking with others, I put my hat in the ring, as it were, of wanting to join the Obama administration and was thrilled and surprised when the offer came and it was for a perfect job. So here I am.”
He added that he was encouraged by then-Senator Obama’s first-hand familiarity with the issues.
“His mom was on food stamps temporarily, so he knows this first hand, but also because of his connection with the broader world, he has a very deep personal commitment to not just trying to use government but trying to connect the government with nonprofit organizations and others to help those who are most vulnerable, and that for me was a very exciting prospect and opportunity.
“One of the things that hunger as an issue needs and has lacked is political will,” he added. “It’s not like AIDS, which doesn’t have a cure, or cancer, which doesn’t have a cure – hunger does have a cure, but what we lack are leaders and decision-makers who are going to say, ‘We’re going to do whatever it takes to end hunger.’ We’re not going to end poverty, but we can end the worst aspects of it that make people go hungry.”
The Department of Agriculture has more than 100,000 employees and a budget of $134 billion, but with those big numbers, Finberg said, comes big obligation.
“It’s a big institution, so figuring out how best to tap into all of the resources, the programs, the people, the outreach for the president and the secretary to accomplish their priorities – ending child hunger, getting more nutritious food to kids, especially, and dealing with climate change and renewable energy – that’s going to be a big task.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the census bureau, there are 10 million people in New York State who are threatened by hunger and 3.3 million who are hungry, the technical term for which is “very low food security,” meaning that they don’t have access to nutritious food at all times.
In Delaware County, hunger is impacted by a 13 percent poverty rate, which translates to 5,800 people living below the federal poverty line.
“I really do hope to be part of the team that ends childhood hunger in the United States,” Finberg said. “As a relatively new dad, I just can’t imagine all of the millions of parents out there who have to tell their sons and daughters, ‘Sorry, we don’t have enough to eat’ when they come and say, ‘Mommy, I’m hungry, Daddy, I’m hungry,’” he said.
But, he added, he sees the promise his new job holds to change that.
“It’s helping make the world a better place,” he said. “It’s repairing the world one small step at a time, and that’s very rewarding.”
Finberg lives with his wife, Kate, his daughter, Eliana, and his son, Matthias, in Washington, D.C.