WOOSTER, Ohio — Your heart might skip a beat when you see one on the road, or it might stop beating altogether if you accidentally hit one with your car, but to people in need, deer can be a huge blessing.
Venison is a “real Godsend to many of our agencies,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director for the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks.
“We need all the protein sources that we can get because as the demand continues to climb week over week, month over month, our traditional sources of donations have not been keeping pace.”
Becky Miller, resource manager for Second Harvest Foodbanks in Youngstown, added, “Meat is expensive to purchase and if you’re living on a fixed or low income budget, we especially like to distribute meat, especially this time of year.”
Ohio has 30-plus local chapters of Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry, or FHFH, covering multiple counties, the most of any state in the area. Indiana has about 20 chapters, Pennsylvania has three and West Virginia has one chapter called the West Virginia Panhandle, according to the FHFH list of chapters by state.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources provides subsidies to help cover processing costs for FHFH in the Buckeye State. On Dec. 15, ODNR announced nearly 80,000 pounds of venison had been donated to local food banks since the opening of Ohio’s deer season Sept. 24.
Some 1,595 deer were donated, which the department estimates will provide 319,000 meals to needy Ohioans. It’s a decline from last year’s numbers, when nearly 2,100 deer were donated.
But the lower harvest numbers could partly be the result of unusually rainy weather that dominated the opening days of deer gun season in late November. There’s still a lot of opportunity, as Ohio’s deer season (counting bow season) doesn’t end until Feb. 5.
Dennis Derflinger, a Wayne County man who helps coordinate that county’s FHFH, admitted the rain has slowed his own hunting opportunities, as well.
In addition to helping coordinate the local program, he usually donates deer meat himself. But as of the end of deer gun week (Dec. 4), Derflinger said only his grandson had been successful in taking a deer and making a donation.
The FHFH program relies on donated deer from farmers and hunters, which is processed by participating USDA inspected meat processors, and then distributed at participating food banks, soup kitchens and hunger ministries.
Hunters who donate meat do not have to pay for the processing. Derflinger said participating meat processors are often willing to provide a discount for their services, but at the same time, the program requires money to run, and processors need to cover their costs.
“There’s no problem with hunters’ willingness to donate deer,” he said, but “we need to pay for the processing of the deer.”
Derflinger said they’re reaching the break-even point where the donations of money are barely keeping up with the donations of meat. FHFH holds independent fund-raising programs across the state to help offset the cost of processing, but they only raise so much.
With Ohio’s unemployment still above 8 percent, the need for food and nutrition is increasing.
In September, national food stamp participation rose to a record 46.3 million people — an increase of more than 430,000 people compared to September 2010, according to the Food Research and Action Center. One in seven Americans receives SNAP/food stamps.
“It’s not just the ones that were normally in need, but others that have been finding themselves out of jobs and not working and needing to go to these ministries to feed their families,” Derflinger said.
Lydia Stahl, executive director of a Wayne County food pantry called People to People Ministries, said people may be a bit hesitant to try deer at first, if they didn’t grow up around hunting or eating wild game. But, when people try venison and become more familiar with how to prepare it, they usually appreciate the meat source.
“There are very few people who turn it down,” she said.
Deer donation programs generally seek to help the needy — but such people can sometimes be closer to home than one might think.
Personal stories. FHFH got its start in 1997, when its executive director, Rick Wilson, encountered a woman along a roadway trying to put a dead deer into her trunk to take home for her family. Wilson, an avid hunter, thought people deserve better than eating road kill and began a program that today serves families across most of the nation.
Derflinger said it’s rare that one of the coordinators gets to hear back from someone who receives the meat, but he did recall one time when a former hunter was dying from cancer and was too weak to hunt. Derflinger worked with the local hospice, and an arrangement was made to provide the man with some of the meat he could no longer harvest on his own.
“He was an avid deer hunter in his time and he had head mounts in his house, in the kitchen and living room, I mean they were all around, but he definitely wanted a meal with some venison,” Derflinger said.
Although venison donation is nothing new, Derflinger said it’s important people remember the program and its need for funding to cover the processing.
“Each year it seems like I have a different church ministry or food giving bank that contacts us, asking to receive some of the meat, just because of the need being there and the economic times that we’re having,” he said.