by Hampton Williams Hofer
photographs by Jaclyn Morgan
At food banks and soup kitchens around North Carolina, where canned carrots and cereal abound, a better option for protein is increasingly filling the freezers: ground venison.
The meat is donated and harvested by a nonprofit called North Carolina Hunters for the Hungry: The group encourages licensed hunters to donate deer meat, which is then processed locally and distributed to hungry North Carolinians. Most of the meat comes from the state’s abundance of whitetail deer. As the deer population creeps beyond a million, adverse side effects such as crop damage and deer-auto collisions intensify. N.C. Hunters for the Hungry provides a way to utilize surplus meat and also alleviate statewide hunger.
“The program is a success due to its network of support, including hunters, meat processors, donors, food relief organizations, and volunteers. All deer harvest, processing, and distribution occurs at the local level,” says Dr. Liz Rutledge, a N.C. Wildlife Federation wildlife specialist and N.C. Hunters for the Hungry board member.
Deer are capable of diminishing crops from corn to cotton and cost farmers millions of dollars annually in crop degradation. Consequently, many farmers are forced to kill the deer themselves, often resulting in a wasted natural resource. Thanks to N.C. Hunters for the Hungry, the animal is harvested into a thick roll of meat marked “wild game.” It looks a lot like hamburger meat and can be used mostly the same way – for chili, tacos, lasagna. Last year, over 1,000 deer were donated and processed, resulting in more than 20 tons of ground venison distributed to hunger relief organizations around the state.
The organization utilizes existing food distribution systems like women’s shelters and church pantries to disperse the venison. Ronnie Dew, a hunter from Wilson, North Carolina, gives every deer he kills to N.C. Hunters for the Hungry. “Somebody once gave me the ultimate gift,” says Dew, who underwent a heart transplant twelve years ago. “After almost four months in the hospital, I got to get back to hunting, and when I heard about the program, I knew it was a way I could help others.”
Dew, who, along with his family, donated 22 deer last year (deer he helped keep away from the runway at the Wilson airport), attends a church where the food pantry is stocked with venison. Every third Saturday of the month, he gets to see the real individuals – veterans, mothers with children, people with disabilities – who come in and benefit from his efforts. “We always tell them it’s deer meat,” says Dew of the recipients, many of whom have never tasted venison and are often dubious, “and then they’ll come back asking, ‘got any more of that deer meat?’ the next time.”
Ten statewide drop-off sites accept donated deer, field-dressed with the skin on (hunters unable to cool or transport their deer can utilize the program’s mobile cooler). The deer are then processed at one of thirteen meat processors – who also accept donations directly – as far west as Yancey County and as far east as Beaufort County. An effort is made to return the processed venison back to the region from which the deer was harvested. It costs about a dollar per pound to produce deer burger meat, and one pound can provide more than four meals. Funding for that meat processing comes from grants, as well as donations from individuals, businesses, and civic groups.
A new donation site in Lillington seeks to collect more than 30 deer this year. That’s 5,000 protein-rich meals for people in need. “There has been no hesitation from the hunters,” says Judy Gardner, who serves with her husband Guy as site manager of the South Wake Conservationist N.C. Hunters for the Hungry donation site. “In fact, no less than 15 hunting groups have agreed to set aside at least one day this season to support the new site. The enthusiasm generated promises that we’ll be busy through to the end of this deer season in December.” So far, 310 pounds of venison have been collected in Lillington alone.
Board member Rutledge, who works more on the deer collection side of the program, recalls a letter from a venison recipient last year who expressed heartfelt thanks for the program – a reminder that the benefits extend beyond the hunting community and touch the lives of real, local people in need.
Deer donated to N.C. Hunters for the Hungry account for less than 1 percent of the number of deer harvested in North Carolina annually, so there is plenty of room to grow. Organic lean meat, which is often expensive and a rarity at most food banks, could soon be within reach for all North Carolinians. The program mandates that donated deer are harvested and reported in accordance with the rules of the N.C .Wildlife Resources Commission.
Even within all the legal regulations and a limited deer season (two or three months, depending on location and weapon), many hunters end up with more deer than they need, or enjoy the sport and want to help control deer populations.
It’s all good news: for farmers, meat processors, hunters, and especially for the roughly one in six North Carolinians who does not know the source of his or her next meal. “Donors report satisfaction with involvement, and recipients express sincere gratitude for the help,” says Dick Hamilton, the nonprofit’s president. “It’s truly a win-win situation.”