Turkey might be traditional Thanksgiving fare, but Farmers and Hunters for the Hungry (FHFH) has a different idea about what constitutes a Thanksgiving meal: venison for those in need.
For the last 15 years, FHFH has been helping hunters donate deer to charitable organizations that feed the hungry.
The organization partners with hunters who contribute wild game to local food banks, soup kitchens, and shelters across the nation. They pay meat processing plants and butchers to prepare and package the meat so that those in need may eat free of charge.
Since 1997, FHFH has received and delivered 3.3 million pounds of meat—enough for over 13 million servings! No small accomplishment at a time when one in six Americans struggle to buy food.
This week I caught up with Josh Wilson, director of operations for FHFH, about venison tacos, environmental advocates, and his life’s work.
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TakePart: With Thanksgiving around the corner, the question on everyone’s mind is obvious: how does deer stack up to turkey?
Josh Wilson: The average donated deer provides around 50 pounds of nutritious high-protein, low-fat meat. This is enough for around 200 quarter-pound servings when used in spaghetti, tacos, and other dishes. Some of the meat that is donated makes its way to shelters and soup kitchens while the rest is distributed individually through local food banks and pantries. We also accept donated elk and even livestock depending on the location and the capabilities of the participating butcher.
TakePart: How did you get the idea for FHFH?
Josh Wilson: Back in 1997, my dad encountered a woman alongside the highway in Virginia. Her car was stopped, and he pulled over to see if she needed assistance. She asked him if he would help her load a small buck into the back of her truck. He recommended that she report the deer [as roadkill] to the appropriate state agency, but she explained that she didn’t have time to report it because she needed to get home. Her family was hungry, she said, and needed the meat. He helped her load it up, and he was left wondering about this experience.
My dad based FHFH on a successful program already in place in Virginia, where hunters could donate deer to local butcher shops who would distribute it to food banks. Over the years, the program has expanded across the nation. We now have 125 volunteer coordinators in 25 different states.
TakePart: What kinds of responses have you gotten from hunters who participate in the program?
Josh Wilson: As the hunters partner up with food banks and soup kitchens and pantries, a lot of them have been impacted by going to these places and hearing how the venison and red meat have made such a difference to the lives of families in need. One pastor we work with on the Eastern shore of Maryland was relaying how important and valuable the deer is to feeding people in his county. He was taking packages of meat out to different families and being treated as though he had brought a box of gold.
TakePart: Aside from providing meals, what do you see as the most important contribution FHFH makes to communities across the country?
Josh Wilson: We see an opportunity for hunters to return to the heritage or history of hunting as it was many years ago. If you think back to colonial times and even before that, the hunters and gatherers fed their communities. Then you saw a rise of commercial agriculture to the point that we get all our food from stores and restaurants and don’t have to spend any time harvesting or gathering food. It’s now resonating with this part of our culture that hunting for food is what hunting is about. It’s almost like a missing link has been restored. It’s an opportunity for people to use some skills that they have to feed hungry people. There is a new sense of purpose for why they hunt and enjoy the outdoors. It’s not just a sport.
TakePart: Have you faced any complaints over the years from environmental or conservation-oriented organizations?
Josh Wilson: Over the years we have heard from some people who identify themselves as proponents of animal rights. The thing that has astonished us is that in several instances, some of them have contacted us to make a financial contribution or to encourage us. They say they are opposed to hunting animals, but they read an article about us or encountered our work in their community, and they say, “if the animals are going to be harvested anyway, I’d rather see them go to people who are hungry than go to waste.” When it gets down to the ground level, the work is about meeting needs that people have. Even if they are opposed to it on some level, they say “I can get behind this.”
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Alison Fairbrother is the director of the nonpartisan Public Trust Project, which investigates and reports on misrepresentations of science by corporations and government. She has written for the Washington Monthly, the Washington Spectator, Grist, and Politics Daily, among others. Alison is based in Washington DC. @adfairbrother