'Hunters for the hungry' campaign is racking up record donations of deer, wild hog, and squirrel, drawing both accolades and censure.
As the whiff of fall descends in northeast Georgia, Victor Devine readies his bow for an annual rite he's observed since boyhood: the deer hunt.
His family of five eats about 100 pounds of venison a year. But in recent seasons, Mr. Devine has returned to the woods to take one or two extra animals, for the benefit of strangers.
He's part of a national "hunters for the hungry" campaign that is racking up record amounts of donated deer, wild hog, and squirrel meat to bolster soup-kitchen chilis during the coldest, leanest stretch of the year for poorer Americans.
Such field-to-kitchen charities draw the ire of animal rights groups, but game managers say they play a role in keeping America's deep woods healthy by curtailing wildlife overpopulation. As the number of hunters declines in the US, and as wild herds grow in many locales, a new market for surplus meat helps overcome many hunters' reticence against taking animals that won't be used, they say.
"A lot of hunters think it's wasteful to take three or four deer if they can't eat it all," says the flannel-shirted Mr. Devine, a middle-school teacher. This program, he says, provides high-quality protein to people who need it, not to mention helping to "get deer out of people's pea patches."
Dozens of programs, often run jointly by states and nonprofit groups, have cropped up since Safari Club, a pro-hunting organization, began donating unused game in the 1980s. But in the past five years, as more rural "deer coolers," or processors, have signed up to take part in such programs, the total pounds donated has risen dramatically, increasing 30 percent nationwide last year alone.
"No chemicals. No hormones. It's field stuff – free-range deer," says Mary Weisenburg, a food pantry coordinator at the Urban Ministry in Athens, Ga. "[Recipients] love the venison chili, and when we serve it in burgers they don't know the difference."