Demand for venison donations from food banks has skyrocketed since COVID-19 arrived in March, but John Plowman, executive director of Hunters Sharing the Harvest, is confident that hunters can meet those needs.
Since March, Ploughman said, the demand his organization has received from food banks for venison has increased by 50%. Hunters Sharing the Harvest allows hunters to donate their deer to participating processors for free. Venison is ground and packaged before distribution to regional food banks, including the food kitchen in Wilkes-Barre which is operated by the Economic Opportunity Commission.
Plowers anticipate demand for venison donations will continue to increase during the fall, and poachers have started donating deer during the early weeks of archery season.
“Because of the pandemic, people have lost their jobs, businesses have closed, and many have fallen into difficult times,” said Plowman. “There is a real need for this.”
In fact, Ploughman relies on donations from archery hunters to contribute a larger percentage of venison to the food bank. During the 2019-2020 hunting season, the Harrisburg-based organization (www.sharedeer.org) donated 160,445 pounds of venison.
“We usually feed a total of 5,000 deer into the food bank system,” said Plowman. “Archery season consists of 1,000 to 1,500 deer donations, and I think that will eventually cover half of all donated deer because so many people are hunting bowhunting and the season is not compressed.”
Bill Williams, information and education supervisor at the Northeastern Region of the Pennsylvania Gaming Commission, said the agency will promote more HSH this year because of the growing need for food banks. The Gaming Commission donated $ 55,000 to HSH, and Williams said it made sense to spread the word about the importance of donating deer.
Williams hopes he can put into practice what he teaches if he is lucky to be able to harvest deer this season.
“If I shoot deer this year, the first thing is to go to the food bank. Most of us have more than one antlerless mark, and I think it’s a good time for hunters to consider donating the first deer they harvest, “Williams said.
“People have had a hard time this year, and putting meat in the hands of those who need it is a noble goal.”
Plowman said HSH is filling a void seen in many food banks because protein from meat, such as beef and pork, is usually in short supply at the facility. Venison is high in protein, he said, and all the deer donated to the program are processed into ground beef, which makes it versatile for use by food banks.
Ground beef from a deer, Plow said, could provide 200 meals.
“You can do a lot with venison,” he said. “All of our venison is obtained over a three month period, and the food bank knows that the time to get it is during hunting season.”
The northeastern region is one of the strongest regions in the state when it comes to donating venison, added Plow. The majority of donated deer in the area are distributed to the Weinberg Northeast Regional Food Bank, which serves the counties of Lackawanna, Luzerne, Susquehanna, and Wyoming.
Ploughman said the donation program was popular in the northeast because there were many hunters, lots of deer and processors participating in each area.
“No hunter has to drive more than 50 miles to donate a deer in the northeast,” he said.
However, HSH faces challenges in other countries when it comes to finding butchers to participate in this program. Although processors were reimbursed by the organization at their expense for processing donated deer, there were some districts that did not participate.
“Nobody wants to be involved in the slaughter, and there aren’t many deer cultivators out there to start with,” he said. “I’ve always worked hard to replace the butcher I lost.”
One processor that recently joined the HSH program is Lantz Wren from Dallas, Luzerne County. He has operated Wren’s Taxidermy and Deer Processing since 2002, but joined HSH last year.
Wren admits his shop is busy during hunting season, but getting involved with HSH doesn’t require extra work.
“It helps that all the deer donated is ground beef and you can put it in a 5 pound tube,” said Wren. “It’s easy to grind and package meat, and I hope to make as many deer donations as the hunters will bring.”
Since the processing costs for the donated deer are covered, Ploughman says the program is also easy for hunters. Another option that may be popular, he added, is for hunters to donate a portion of their deer and save the rest. Hunters Sharing the Harvest will cover the processing fee for the donated deer share.
Wren believes that the partial donation option will be popular as many hunters like to keep the back strap or make their venison a specialty product.
He also agrees with Ploughman that the archery season can be the biggest contributor to the program.
“I think the number of harvests will drop in rifle season because so many people are hunting archery,” said Wren. “Last year we shot more deer than rifles. And although many archery hunters wait for large sums of money, they are still able to temporarily harvest the female deer and donate it to the program. “