Pennsylvania deer hunters donate venison to food banks

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters Life!) - Deer hunters in Pennsylvania are expected to donate about 100,000 pounds of venison to help meet the surging demand from the state’s food banks.

Hunters will shoot about 300,000 deer during the two-week hunting season that began on November 29. Some of their haul will be given to Hunters Sharing the Harvest, a program run by the state’s agriculture department.

It provides meat to local food banks which redistribute the venison to more than 4,000 local food-assistance organizations that help people unable to feed themselves because of the economic downturn.

“Quality food donations are a rare commodity,” said Kendall Hanna, executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank. “Hunters Sharing the Harvest provides us with lean meat that’s high in protein, and that’s hard to come by.”

His organization normally receives between 10,000 and 15,000 pounds of venison through the program each year. The meat is typically made into hamburgers or chili.

Demand for food of all kinds is up about 75 percent from two years ago. The bank feeds about 250,000 people across a 27-county area, Hanna said. Statewide, 1.3 million people are at risk of hunger, according to the Agriculture Department.

Donations from major food manufacturers are the bank’s main source of food, but the increased demand in recent years has forced it to buy more supplies at a cost of about $1.5 million this year, Hanna explained.

The state’s estimated 750,000 first-day hunters can donate their deer to any of the 125 participating butchers. The state pays the butchers 85 cents per pound of venison processed.

In 2009, hunters shot 108,000 bucks and more than 200,000 does, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, in a state where deer are so numerous they are seen as a pest.

Joyce Rothermel, chief executive of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, said venison donations are particularly valuable in rural areas served.

Some 600 local pantries served by the Pittsburgh bank feed an average of 120,000 people a month, representing an increase of 20 percent over the last two years, Rothermel said.

Rothermel’s group has kept up with the demand thanks to assistance from food manufacturers, food stamp programs and individual donations. But she thinks demand will rise due to the estimated 16,000 people whose jobless benefits recently expired.

Although the Pittsburgh bank has provided a basic level of nutrition for its clients, some don’t eat as much as they should, Rothermel said.

“There are people who only eat two meals a day,” she said.