Take a moment to picture 50 pounds of donated food bound for a local shelter in, say, Michigan. Cans and boxes of dried goods are probably in your mind. Maybe some bulk tins of beans?
Whatever you saw, it probably wasn’t this: a 100-pound whitetail carcass, hooves and all, waiting to be carved into steaks and ground into patties before it's shipped off to a local food pantry.
It might seem like an oddity, but that exact process is the bread and butter (and venison) of a wide network of charitable hunter groups, or "hunters for the hungry" programs that are more prevalent than you might think.
Found around the U.S., with chapters from Virginia to Alaska, the groups are essentially networks of hunters and meat processors that work together to get wild game to charity organizations. And they’re nothing if not prolific: the groups donate tons—literally tons—of wild game to shelters and food banks annually, which get transformed into meals for the hungry.
“There are shelters that, of course, aren’t familiar with receiving venison, and we’ve actually been able to open doors and get them to be like, 'Oh, my God, this is a whole other source of food!'” said Michelle Scheuermann, spokeswoman for The Sportsman Channel, which runs a game donation program.
The Sportsman Channel’s program is called Hunt.Fish.Feed, and it hosts a series of coordinated game dinners in major cities to raise awareness of hunter donation programs.
At stops in Las Vegas, San Diego, Milwaukee and other cities, the Sportsman Channel sets up a donated game dinner and invites various local dignitaries and legislators to participate, hoping to spread the word about the benefit of hunter programs.
The majority of such programs, however, are more like the one run by Josh Wilson, director of operations for Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry (FHFH), a large group that coordinates donation programs in 25 states.
In short, FHFH isn’t so much about the actual hunting as it is about fundraising and coordination. To get meals onto tables, it does the legwork of setting up deals with meat processors in various locations that are willing to take donated game. FHFH then agrees to pay the processing fee for the meat, allowing a hunter to simply show up with a deer or elk he’s shot and drop it off for donation.
“Hunters just take their deer to participating butchers, drop them off and tell them they want to donate it,” he said.
FHFH raises the funds to pay that processing fee, then helps connect the butcher to local food banks or shelters in need of food, Wilson said.
Wilson’s group is a far-reaching network: over the 2008-2009 season, it coordinated the donation of about 6,700 deer to participating butchers, totaling around 167 tons of meat.
That translates to about 1.34 million servings of food for 2008-2009 alone, according to Wilson.
“And this year looks like it’s going to be a substantial increase,” he said.
Mainly, that meat comes from large game animals, but some donations also come from farmers with unwanted livestock. Small game, such as birds, also make it to the processor. Scheuermann said fish has been particularly hard to incorporate, because of how hard it is to keep fresh, but Hunt.Fish.Feed wants to incorporate it more in future years.
Along with FHFH, several large umbrella organizations coordinate chapters in various states: the Safari Club’s Sportsmen Against Hunger is one. Others have names like the United Bowhunters of New Jersey, Share the Harvest and the Venison Donation Coalition.
Even the Green Bay Packers get involved, selling hunting caps with camouflage and blaze orange colors that funnel proceeds to food shelters and pantries, in a program called “Hunting Down Hunger.”
Veteran rocker Ted Nugent is also a big supporter, and this list from the National Rifle Association attests to the number of state and regional groups around the country.
All told, a surprisingly vast community donates startling amounts of food. A group called Hunters for the Hungry in Virginia, for instance, donated about 1.6 million meals last year alone.
There is, admittedly, some resistance to the idea that the best way to get food to the hungry is through hunting large game, often with high-powered rifles in a practice that some see as destructive or inhumane. Wilson admitted that some hunters do deliberately go out and hunt deer they have no plan to eat—just to donate to a shelter.
Scheuermann said she takes such criticism in stride, and tries to encourage people who may look down on hunting to check out the program before they make any decisions.
“If that’s their thing, we welcome them to join us at our events and help provide a vegetarian option,” she said, “and help volunteer with us, because … it’s about feeding those less fortunate, it’s about helping our local neighbors.
“We don’t want to get into an argument over a process. Let’s solve the means to an end.”