The sense of satisfaction you feel after a long hunt, when the cooler is full and your legs are sore from days walking the hills, is hard to beat. And being able to share the fruits of your labor with friends, family, and those in need is just the cherry on top. But just how impactful are these acts of generosity that many hunters partake in each fall, and how can they solidify the importance of hunting’s place in the modern world?
As hunters, most of us recognize our greatest measurable contribution to society as the dollars we feed into our conservation system through legislation like the Pittman Robertson Act or Dingle-Johnson Act and the purchases of hunting licenses and tags. But the value of the meat harvested, and how that benefits our food system, often isn’t thoroughly considered.
One organization that has attempted such analysis is the Wild Harvest Initiative (WHI), led by hunter-conservationist Shane Mahoney, who quite literally wrote the book on the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. Their goal? To measure the total economic, conservation, and social benefits of wild game harvests in the US and Canada, help reframe debates about the relevance of wild and natural harvests, and understand how they contribute to a stable and equitable food system.
The project involves surveying thousands of hunters across states like Texas, Wyoming, Nevada, and beyond and combining it with existing data generated by Fish and wildlife agencies across the US and Canada. All this analysis tells us not only how much meat is being harvested by recreational hunters but also what hunters do with it once it’s in their freezers.
Take Texas, for example. WHI estimates 97% of all successful hunters were sharing a portion of their wild meat with others, cumulatively adding up to over 5.8 million people receiving game meat, mostly venison, both within their household and outside of it. In fact, 42.9% of hunters shared their harvests with folks outside of their household, to an estimated 2.1 million people.
Wyoming and Nevada reported similar results, with 65 to 75% of all hunters sharing meat with people outside of their homes every year, totaling millions of pounds of nutritious meat distributed to the wider community. Free of charge, and free of many of the drawbacks of the unhealthy, hyper-procced food the poorest among us are often forced to eat.
As most people already know, the US and many other nations are currently in a cost-of-living crisis. Depending on the item, fresh food prices have risen by 10 to 20% in the past year, and it’s forcing people to turn to food bank donations to feed themselves and their families. As a result, now over 53 million people, or approximately 16% of the national population, rely on food donations for a portion of their caloric needs. And by many accounts, the situation only seems to be worsening.
But food banks themselves are also troubled by those same increases in food prices, especially when it comes to sourcing nutritious food items like healthy, unprocessed meats or fresh fruits and vegetables. And though some food banks may benefit from generous benefactors that allow food banks to spend a bit more on nutritious staples, current market forces are making food banks turn to food that’s lacking in protein, fiber, vitamins, and essential minerals, all nutrients that our neighbors most in need require. And this is where hunters have the opportunity to go above and beyond for our local communities.
Knowing this, if you’re a lucky hunter with a freezer overflowing with game meat, one of the best things you can do with it is donate it to those in need. One example of meat donation programs in action has been the Wyoming Wildlife Federation’s highly successful Hunters for the Hungry program. In 2022 alone, they organized the distribution of over 20,000 pounds of game meat from 347 animals, from animals such as elk, deer, moose, antelope, and bighorn sheep. And in a state where over 86,000 people (about 15% of the state’s population) face food insecurities daily, that amount of food is not insignificant and would otherwise cost over $127,000 when compared to the average price of low-quality ground beef.
And Wyoming is certainly not alone in implementing projects like this. Both Montana’s and Michigan’s ultra-successful Hunters Against Hunger programs are just two examples of community-led programs redistributing thousands of pounds of valuable game meat to those in need. In fact, it’s estimated that around 10 million meals of wild game are donated by hunters across the nation every year. That’s an estimated $70 million of meat donated by generous hunters without the use of a single tax dollar. Given these numbers, it’s hard to understate just how crucial these donations are to the communities around us and solidify the importance of hunting in modern society.
Despite those very impressive numbers shown above, hunters are still only donating around 1 to 2% of their total kills to people in need, a number that can increase substantially with very little effort on our part. It could be as simple as adding a few packets of ground venison to the donation pile at your local food bank or notching an extra tag during doe season in overpopulated deer country, even if your freezer is already full.
The process of procuring a game animal like a deer or elk for donation varies greatly by state and program. But in every instance, two major rules always apply. The most obvious, of course, is that all animals must be obtained legally. Because of this, most processors dealing with meat donations will require you to present your tag with said animal to ensure this is true.
Secondly, all donated animals must be field-dressed before drop off. The last thing we want is tainted meat on the plates of people in need, so make sure each animal is cool, dry, and as clean as possible, just as you would when hunting for your plate.
Depending on the state or region, you might also have to have your deer tested for CWD before donations to ensure people aren’t eating potentially (emphasis on potentially) tainted meat against their knowledge. Fortunately, many such programs, like this one in Virginia, already have testing systems set up to make it easy for all parties involved.
Varying options for different “levels” of donations also exist. You certainly don’t have to donate a whole deer each time, many places often accept just a couple of packages because every single donation counts. As long as it’s packaged appropriately (not freezer-burnt or super old), then it’s good to go. What’s even better is that, in many cases, these programs will also pay for the processing fees for that animal, so the donation itself doesn’t cost you a penny. But it’s often encouraged to pay for processing when you can, as since it’s a system that relies on the generosity of others, they only have limited funds to do so.
Game meat donations are one of those unique opportunities where hunters can give back to the communities around us whilst also doing the things we love out in the woods. So as hunting seasons begin to wrap up, and as many of us are marveling at our freezers full of venison, I'd highly recommend sparing a few pounds of meat where possible and donating to those less fortunate.
So we have a quick task for you. Comment down below your favorite processors or programs in your home state where hunters can donate meat to those in need. Thanks for the input, and happy hunting from everyone at MeatEater.