November 16, 2014

With Nonprofit Help, Deer Hunters Share Bounty With the Poor

A coordinator of Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry looks at packages of donated venison with a meat processor in Zanesville, Ohio.

As the air begins to chill and the leaves turn brilliant shades of red and gold, many hunters’ thoughts turn to deer season. A small faith-based charity lets them share their bounty with food banks that struggle to provide meat as prices soar.

Last year, Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry provided more than 400,000 pounds of high-protein, low-fat wild venison to participating food programs. An average deer provides 50 pounds of meat, which translates into 200 four-ounce servings. The nonprofit connects hunters with certified meat processors and covers the cost of butchering. In most cases, the meat is used in the same county in which it was donated.

Rick Wilson was inspired to start the group after he stopped to help a woman standing beside an old car pulled off by the side of the road.

"I thought she might need mechanical help," he recalls. Instead, the woman asked for help hoisting a roadkill deer into her trunk. A lifelong hunter, Mr. Wilson cautioned that taking the animal could mean a fine or citation. "But she looked me in the eye and said, ‘I don’t care. My kids and me are hungry.’ " He helped load the deer. As she drove away, "I knew I had just looked into the eyes of Jesus, who asks us to feed the hungry," he says.

Mr. Wilson, then a public-school teacher, began approaching other hunters to donate deer to local food banks. He asked his church to give money to cover processing the meat. There were 76 deer donations that first year, and the program has grown rapidly since then.

Hunger is anything but seasonal. And contrary to popular perception, says Mr. Wilson, so is the supply of venison. "Property and damage permits allow year-round harvesting, so you have hunters not just on farms but on places like airports and military bases as well."

Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry, based in Western Maryland, now has 130 chapters in 26 states. In-kind donations, including the deer, make up half of the organization’s $1.8-million budget. Individual donations account for almost two-thirds of the remaining $900,000, the rest coming from corporate, foundation, and government grants.

Mr. Wilson hopes to continue the group’s steady growth.

"Hunters are generous people," he says. "And by putting a meaningful aspect on the hunt, they get a reason to do more of what they love with the benefit of feeding hungry families right in their own communities."