Hunters are donating more venison to strapped food banks as Ohio and other states offer financial aid aimed at managing high deer populations. It's a much-needed boost for pantries struggling to meet rising demand.
The national food bank association Feeding America has seen demand for help more than double at some food banks. The Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks says the number of people served by its member charities was up 37 percent in the fourth quarter ending June 30, compared with the previous fourth quarter.
Groups like Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry and Safari Club International have promoted venison donations to pantries in Ohio and other states, but processing and packaging costs deter hunters, especially in tough economic times.
Processing one deer can cost $70 or more in addition to hunting equipment and license costs. "Anything that can help hunters with that is great," said Hunter Mike Samsel of suburban Cleveland, who has donated venison for more than 20 years. "It gets more deer harvested and helps the needy at the same time."
Ohio has joined a growing number of states — Indiana and Minnesota among them — that saw increased donations after they began offering a financial incentive for venison processing in order to curtail rising deer populations.
Ohio's wildlife division provided a $100,000 grant for processing fees for the first time last year, which was matched by Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry and the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks. Ohio hunters last year donated more than 1,000 deer — more than double the previous year's total — providing venison for 220,000 meals.
No more 'hot dogs and bologna'
The agency hopes to double donations again this year, but its main goal is deer population management.
The state would like to reduce the 650,000 deer estimated in areas where hunting is allowed down to 500,000, said division deer biologist Mike Tonkovich. Management helps control deer disease, prevents damage to crops and lawns and hazards to motorists and prevents deer from depleting food sources needed by other wildlife, he said.
Venison can have what a stronger flavor than other meat, but the low-fat ground meat is often used in chili and stews.
"If we didn't get that, it would be hot dogs and baloney for us," said Linda Douglas, 57, of Albany in southeast Ohio, who depends on pantry venison to help feed her family. "One package will last us a month."
Households served in the Southeast Ohio Regional Food Center's 10 counties rose more than 1,000 from September to October, said manager Marilyn Sloan.
Ohio's Second Harvest association received increased state budget funding and some donors have given more, but rising demand is straining supplies, said executive director Lisa Hamler-Fugitt.
"We are seeing people who have never been to pantries before," she said.