As food banks across the country grapple with dwindling inventories and supply chain issues, hunting enthusiasts have stepped up their game to assist needy families with donations of legally harvested meat.
Deer, bison, elk, antelope, and moose are all excellent alternative sources of protein amid the sticker shock of skyrocketing beef prices, says Eric Luongo, area resource coordinator for the Montana Food Bank Network (MFBN) in Missoula.
Luongo said hunter donation programs have grown in scope and demand as food prices rise.
“We’re hoping this is going to trend up and more donations are going to come in,” Luongo told The Epoch Times.
Luongo oversees wild meat donations through Hunters Against Hunger, a statewide program working in conjunction with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks.
The pilot effort began in 2014 and has grown to include many community food banks and meat processing facilities throughout the state.
According to the MFBN, hunters who legally harvest big game during the hunting season can donate “all or part of their meat to feed hungry Montanans.”
Luongo said the network distributed 25,000 pounds of meat last year, providing nearly 21,000 meals to local families in need. However, before the pandemic, the network had received and processed nearly 50,000 pounds of meat annually; Luongo says the network hopes to bridge that gap this year.
“One of the challenges of the program is having enough hunters and enough processors throughout the state,” he said.
Harvest Down During Pandemic
Luongo described the program as a partnership among an estimated 600 to 700 Montanans and out-of-state hunters who harvest the meat, 32 processors that create the finished product, and food banks that distribute it.
The Hunters Against Hunger program has “really helped” the Gallatin Valley Food Bank in Bozeman, Montana, over the years, program manager Laura Stonecipher said.
“Many of our customers want locally sourced foods and game meat is one of the best options to provide that,” she told The Epoch Times.
Before the program began, the food bank paid all game meat processing costs.
“Now, we can redirect those funds to other food needs,” she said.
Stonecipher said the program also benefits the local economy by helping game processors. Since 2014, the food bank has received more than 70,000 pounds of game meat to distribute to customers.
“We already have folks asking when game meat will be back in our store,” she added.
Montana’s ample supply of wild game is a natural boon in the fight against hunger, according to Kelli Hess, interim co-executive director for the Missoula Food Bank and Community Center.
“We are so fortunate to live in a state that allows the harvested game to be donated to our local food banks,” Hess told The Epoch Times.
“We have some hunters that specifically hunt to provide meat to our store, and others that donate because they’ll never be able to eat all the meat they get. Our customers love the wild game, and when we get it, it never lasts long.”
Idaho Hunters Feeding the Hungry is a nonprofit organization incorporated in 2002 to provide “big game meat” to area food pantries and “food insecure” families.
“With the help of hunters and meat processors, we can transform the big surplus game into nutritional protein for the hungry,” according to the organization’s website.
The San Antonio Food Bank in Texas also receives donations of wild game. The Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation (CSF) runs larger-scale game meat donation programs.
Big Game, Big Need
“Instead of discarding or wasting legally harvested game meat or surpluses of meat harvested through nuisance or crop damage licenses, donation programs have developed across the country with the objective of turning the meat into meals for those in need,” the organization says on its website.
“Many hunters who wish to donate individual animals they harvest through regulated hunting participate in these programs every year, which helps to maintain the historical role of hunters as food providers and ensure game meat” doesn’t go to waste.
The organization cited research that shows that 87 percent of adults will support hunting if the main reason is to procure meat.
Over the past decade-and-a-half, “meat has been the most common and fastest-growing motivation for hunters nationwide,” according to CSF.
CSF also found that many states will allow hunters to contribute money to support wild game donation programs when purchasing their licenses.
In 2010, nearly 3 million pounds of deer, elk, antelope, moose, pheasant, and waterfowl meat found their way onto U.S. tables through donation programs.
One deer, for example, can provide roughly 50 pounds of venison. An adult elk can supply up to 200 pounds of meat.
The MFBN received donations of 22 deer last year, enough to feed hundreds of families, Luongo said.
“The least amount of yield is going to be an antelope because it’s a smaller animal,” Luongo said. “The majority are deer, but there is a fair amount of antelope. Bison and moose are a little less common.”
A Matter of Food Insecurity
All donated meat is sent to a processing facility, ground into burger meat, and wrapped in 1-pound packages for distribution to Montana food banks.
“I know the [program] funding is there. I think it’s a great program, and it’s going to continue to grow,” Luongo said.
The nonprofit Backyard Bow Pro program in North Carolina is a network of hunters that battles food insecurity by donating legally harvested deer.
Meanwhile, several states have recently adopted legislation creating or expanding game meat donation programs.
In 2020, Missouri approved a wild game bill (House Bill 1711). Texas expanded meat donation programs (HB 2214) to include legally harvested exotic species.
In April, the Utah Legislature adopted HB 142, which allows hunters to donate wild game meat to local food banks.
“If everyone who harvested an elk donated even 1 percent, that would amount to over three tons of elk meat.
“If the average family meal consists of 20 ounces of meat, that would yield over 6,000 meals for people who may not have otherwise had a healthy, wholesome meal,” according to hunttoeat.com.
During the height of the pandemic in November 2020, Pennsylvania agriculture Secretary Russell Redding encouraged the state’s more than 850,000 licensed hunters to donate a deer to feed needy families.
The nonprofit Hunters Sharing the Harvest coordinated the effort.
“It’s a shining example of the good that can happen when public sector support and private sector generosity work together to solve a problem,” said Redding, noting that more than 2 million Pennsylvanians were at risk of hunger in 2020.