ANNAPOLIS – For some, deer hunting has taken on new meaning: charity.
With the help of a statewide nonprofit program, sport hunters can donate legally tagged deer to local food banks in Maryland.
The program – called Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry – was launched last September in Washington County by a retired art teacher and endorsed in April by the state Department of Natural Resources.
With deer-hunting season’s kickoff on Tuesday, program founder Rick Wilson of Hagerstown and others are working to raise funds to pay for deer processing, so that hunters donating meat don’t have to pay themselves.
“If one-fourth of the churches in Maryland each donated $150” toward the processing, Wilson said, “we could provide enough meat for 1 million meals.”
It costs about $35 to dress and package one deer.
Wilson, 52, said he started the deer-donation program last year, a few years after meeting a hungry woman on the side of the road who was dragging a deer from the bushes to her car. He stopped to offer her help and learned she was picking up a deer that had been left by the road to feed her children.
“From that day on, I knew I would be volunteering,” he said. “I had planned on teaching another seven or eight years but things just came together last year, and I realized this was more important.”
The bow and firearms hunter now volunteers full-time with the program and has a part-time staff of 38. He said he feels lucky to have a “new career” that melds his two greatest passions: hunting and God.
“I wake up every morning thanking God,” he said.
Bill Ewing, executive director for the Maryland Food Bank, said the hunters’ fledgling program has been a big help.
“When we ask people, `What do you want most?’ they always say meat,” he said. “[Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry and programs like it] generate a lot of meat for our programs.”
The Center for Poverty Solutions estimates more than 80,000 of the approximately 5 million Maryland residents don’t have enough to eat or at risk of hunger.
But Mike Makarian, director of campaigns for the Fund for Animals, a national animal-rights advocacy group headquartered in New York, is not impressed by the donations.
“Our perspective is that programs such as these are just public relations gimmicks for hunters,” Makarian said.
He added if the hunters were serious about helping the hungry, they could donate the money spent on hunting instead of the byproducts. He estimated hunters spend about $20 for each pound of deer they bag, when license fees and ammunition are considered.
Wilson could not speculate on the amount of deer meat anticipated this hunting season but said that last year two tons were collected from Washington County alone.
Each deer provides about 50 pounds of meat, typically served in quarter-pound servings.
The program takes donations year round, with more than six tons collected already this year, Wilson said.
Participating sport hunters take deer donations, or “little cows,” to one of six approved processors, where the meat is packaged and frozen for distribution to 16 food banks statewide.
“Our first deer was donated by a 14-year-old,” Wilson said. “It was the first deer he had ever shot, and he donated the whole deer, asking for one steak to taste.” Wilson’s program is modeled after a Virginia program, Hunters for the Hungry, which started in 1991. Wilson said he volunteered for that program, too. -30-