Much as the quickest way to a lover’s heart is through their stomach, the surest way to help nonhunters accept hunting is through meat from deer, elk, and other wild game.
Whether it’s Steven Rinella serving venison to a roomful of nonhunting New Yorkers, or a Swedish hunter substituting a moose roast for wine on a Friday dinner date, “venison diplomacy” politely reminds recipients that hunting remains vital to the human experience.
Such are meat’s utility, credibility, and persuasive powers that venison donation programs proliferated across North America in the past 20-plus years to supply soup kitchens and stock foodbank shelves. Meanwhile, venison envy has been luring “locavores,” college students, and other self-reliant adults into learn-to-hunt programs taught by universities, wildlife agencies, and hunting organizations.
Many venison-donation programs in Eastern states have the dual mission of reducing deer numbers to spare urban shrubbery or rural cash crops; and even the triple mission of reducing car-deer collisions. Venison’s driving force, however, is its power to provide healthy protein that benefits all people, no matter their age, race, or economic status.
The Power of Meat
In fact, those powers can also be leveraged to heavily fund wildlife donation programs themselves. Wyoming proved that this spring, roughly seven months after Jennie Gordon, wife of Gov. Mark Gordon, launched the Wyoming Hunger Initiative in October 2019 to fight childhood hunger and “food insecurity.”
Part of Wyoming’s solution to hunger is its “Food from the Field” program, which works with the state’s game and fish department, department of agriculture, Food Bank of the Rockies, and participating processors to streamline game meat donations to pantries. Hunters can donate a portion or all of their kill to foodbanks; and all elk, deer, or moose will be tested for chronic wasting disease before being shared. The state covers the processing costs.
To help launch Food from the Field, Gordon worked with the WG&F commission to raffle two once-in-a-lifetime commissioner tags to generate funding for the program. The tags let the hunter buy a deer, elk, or pronghorn tag in any open unit, and then hunt with any legal weapon. The first raffle sold 300 of the $100 raffle tickets to raise $30,000. The second raffle raised $45,000 by selling 450 tickets. Gordon said 40% of the buyers were nonresidents, of which two claimed the coveted tags.
Gordon, whose husband was elected governor in November 2018, grew up in a family of nine kids. She said they always got enough to eat, but only because they never wasted anything. That made her pay attention when hearing about hungry kids in Wyoming.
“Food is something to treasure, and not many people were thinking about childhood hunger in Wyoming,” she said. “It’s behind the scenes, but I knew that about 23,500 Wyoming kids deal with food insecurity—that idea of not knowing where your next meal is coming from—so I started working on it when I became first lady. And now with COVID-19, the need is even greater.”
Gordon said hunting provides solid solutions to such needs: “I grew up in a hunting family, I’ve become a hunter as an adult, and Wyoming is blessed with game. When we learned food pantries needed more meat, we started finding partners willing to fill those needs. We didn’t reinvent the wheel. Nothing’s worse than coming in and telling someone who’s already doing good work that you have all the answers.”
Answering COVID’s Challenges
Cooperation and private donations are more important than ever in 2020 because COVID-19 is killing jobs and increasing food shortages while siphoning off public funds previously dedicated to food charity programs. Fortunately, nearly every state and province have a deer-donation program that connects communities to venison, and one deer can provide nearly 170 venison servings. In Tennessee, for example, Hunters for the Hungry donated 140,401 pounds of venison to food banks and emergency shelters in 2019.
The Hunters for the Hungry initiative receives support from the National Rifle Association, which works with state programs and affiliates nationwide to publicize and raise money. HFH has brought in hundreds of thousands of pounds of venison to provide 8.1 million meals through homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and food banks across the U.S.
Likewise, Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry has worked with state wildlife agencies and hunter-based conservation partners since 1997 to help hunters find processors for their deer and pay for the processors’ work. Josh Wilson, executive director of FHFH, said this Christian-based effort donates about 4,000 animals annually nationwide to feed families.
Most of the donated animals are deer, but elk, livestock, and poultry are also included. FHFH increased its livestock donations this spring and summer because COVID-19 caused more hunger, but the group will resume its focus on deer as hunting seasons return.
FHFH’s donations totaled 177,600 pounds of meat this past year, which provided 710,500 servings. And since its creation in 1997, FHFH has provided nearly 21 million quarter-pound servings. The group maintains lists of cooperating processors that accept whole, field-dressed deer in over 20 states, but Ohio, Indiana, Maryland, and North Carolina provide FHFH’s largest network of processors.
Whole Deer Wanted
Wilson said most game-donation programs offer more outlets for processing whole deer than for handling home-packaged venison. “Some groups hold ‘clean out your freezer’ opportunities, but that can get complicated. Some food banks hesitate to take meat that’s handled by a third party. The more people in the food chain, the greater the chance something gets mishandled. Plus, it’s usually easier to set a price for processing a deer, and then pay the butcher for his work. But each state handles things differently.”
Whether donors drop off deer whole or processed, they’re typically motivated more by charity and “good public relations” than a quest to expand hunting opportunities, Wilson said. Even though many Eastern whitetail states offer tags for multiple does and fawns, and agencies urge hunters to donate surplus deer, relatively few hunters shoot more than one deer annually.
“FHFH was founded on the belief that we must take care of those less fortunate,” Wilson said. “Most hunters don’t donate deer just so they can look good to their friends or go hunting more often. If they’re worried about appearances, it’s usually about showing the good things hunters accomplish as a group.”
After butchers process donated deer, they typically grind everything because it’s easier for foodbanks to hand out ground meat. Likewise, recipients can more easily prepare it. Either way, if a recipient is skeptical about venison, foodbanks usually offer some recipes with each package, and suggest they try it. “If you like it, come back for more.”
“In most cases, they come back for more,” Wilson said. “You just help them get over their apprehension. Some people have no experience in the outdoors or with deer, venison, or any wild game. Venison donations help get them past that, while making them aware that a hunter provided their meat.”
Folks Like Wild Venison
Hank Forester, assistant director of hunting heritage with the Quality Deer Management Association, said most nonhunters willingly sample venison that his group cooks and offers at farmers’ markets and other public venues. Likewise, farmers’ markets organizers eagerly welcome the QDMA’s “Field to Fork” booths and venison samples.
“Many people we serve at farmers’ markets have never hunted deer or even handled wild meat,” Forester said. “But most of them know about deer collisions and the need to shoot problem deer. We just ask them if they’d like to try some venison, and most say yes. If they’ve had a bad experience with it, I explain that they probably just overcooked it. I prove them wrong all the time, and they ask for more.”
It’s also possible many nonhunters know more about venison and other wild meats than assumed. Research published in the January 2020 edition of the Wildlife Society Bulletin estimated 75% of Michigan’s population, including 59% of its nonhunting population, had eaten “wild-harvested meat” at least once in their life.
That study, “Consumption of Wild‐Harvested Meat in Society,” by Amber D. Goguen and Shawn J. Reilly at Michigan State University, also found 35% of Michiganders had eaten venison one to 10 times the previous year. Further, of nonhunters trying venison, 71% were provided cooked venison, and 54% received it uncooked. Of those who had never eaten venison, 22% said they never had the opportunity, 16% said their diet or lifestyle didn’t allow it, and 14% said they disliked its taste or smell.
Further, a 2019 study by the National Shooting Sports Foundation found 43% of Americans had eaten deer, boar, wild turkey, duck, or buffalo the previous year. In fact, 55% of Midwestern residents had done so, making it the only region where a majority of residents have eaten game meat. In another study, Shahed Iqbal estimated in 2009 that up to 81% of residents in North Dakota, a mostly rural state, ate wild‐harvested meat annually.
Can venison cravings create more hunters? In 2017, Prof. Richard Stedman at Cornell University in New York studied “locavores” (those who try to raise, buy, or harvest their food locally) in the state’s Finger Lakes region to assess their potential as future hunters. Stedman found 82% of the survey’s participants had eaten wild‐harvested meat the previous year, but less than 20% of the respondents reported eating it regularly.
He also found only 7.4% of the survey’s participants hunted the previous year, which included 16.9% of men and 3.4% of women. When nonhunting participants were asked if they’d like to try hunting, 57.3% said never, but 22.7% said they would consider it. An additional 10.6% previously hunted but since quit. Men were more likely to try hunting (19.7%) or consider hunting (45.8%), while only 4.9% of women said they were likely to try hunting, and 28.3% said they would consider it.
Stedman concluded that eating wild game can be a steppingstone to hunting participation, but that doesn’t have to be its sole goal. Simply being part of the hunting culture and its related activities, such as cooking and eating game meat, is also important to hunting. Stedman suggested that including more females and urban–suburban people in the locavore movement could strengthen and diversify support for hunting and conservation.
Forester said gaining diverse support is one of the QDMA’s “venison diplomacy” goals. He notes that most venison gets shared informally between friends and family, with no agency or organization tracking the totals.
To get some sense of informal sharing, Forester said the QDMA encourages its members to share and donate venison and keep track of the amounts. In 2019, QDMA members reported sharing 5.82 million meals, or 1.45 million pounds of venison, with friends and family outside the donors’ homes. In 2019, QDMA members also donated 7.38 million meals, or 1.85 million pounds of venison to people outside the donors’ homes.
By providing more wild game meals for more people, hunters can help society better understand hunting’s role in North America’s food chain. Forester emphasizes that food connections also include ducks, geese, turkeys, rabbits, grouse, pheasants, and squirrels; not just deer.
The Wild Harvest Initiative, a Canadian program run by conservationist Shane Mahoney, has been tracking harvest data across North American since 2017 to assess hunting and angling’s social, economic, and ecologic impacts.
Recent totals compiled by the WHI indicate U.S. and Canadian hunters from the 2014-15 and 2015-2016 seasons harvested:
“Whether you’re feeding people to encourage them to hunt, or to help them understand hunting’s many roles, you’ll create better-informed advocates,” Forester said. “Every survey ever done on hunting shows 70 to 80% approval ratings when the animal is used for food. That’s a powerful position for hunting to work from.”