In North Carolina, food insecurity will affect nearly 1 in 5 residents in 2020, and is expected to affect almost 29% of kids, up from 19% in the state in 2018, according to the national food relief organization, Feeding America. Hunger and food insecurity have an impact on every aspect of daily life and many in vulnerable communities will not have enough food on the table this holiday season. Illness and economic hardship have only intensified these burdens for many North Carolinians.
The North Carolina Wildlife Federation (NCWF) Deer Donation Program connects sportsmen and women with their communities, promoting kindness and generosity by helping feed neighbors and families in need, while maintaining balance within the ecosystem and healthy herds.
The program currently facilitates the donation of 400-600 white-tailed deer annually to North Carolina Hunters for the Hungry for processing, which equates to about 17,500 pounds of ground venison for distribution. NC Hunters for the Hungry's network of inspected meat processors produce packages of ground venison, which is frozen and distributed to local food relief organizations.
"Last season, more than 50 food pantries received venison from the NC Hunters for the Hungry network of processors," said Dr. Liz Rutledge, NCWF's Director of Wildlife Resources and NC Hunters for the Hungry board member. The deer donation program allows hunters to help manage local deer numbers through annual harvest while supplying venison to those in need. Food relief organizations love being able to offer venison to their clients because it's a high quality, natural protein source that's versatile to use.
COVID's impact on deer hunting
NCWF's deer program works with communities year-round to build relationships; however, the opportunity for hunters to donate deer aligns with the statewide, regulated deer season. Deer donations typically ramp up later in November in most regions across the state, with the season ending in early January.
Deer harvest can vary from season to season depending on available food resources such as mast, hunter effort, and other factors including weather events or disease. This year, the pandemic may play a role in hunter effort, Rutledge said. "Hunters may have more time to be in the woods due to COVID-19, so we'll have to wait and see if this translates into an increase in deer harvest and donation this season. Donation numbers may also increase as hunters become aware of more individuals and families who lack sufficient food this season."
Connecting to NCWF's mission
The deer program closely aligns with NCWF's mission to conserve, protect and restore wildlife and habitat, Rutledge said. "Deer are a sustainable resource, so the program focuses on proactive management of white-tailed deer, predominantly in agricultural communities. We do this by improving habitats lost to deer browsing, decreasing the possible spread of disease by maintaining healthy populations, and potentially reducing the risk of deer-vehicle collisions."
Other benefits of the program are the tens of thousands of pounds of venison donated to feed the hungry each season, local reductions in crop damage, increased business for meat processors, and educational opportunities and relationship building.
The South Wake Conservationists and Gaston PAWS are great examples of NCWF chapters whose program efforts have thrived and become self-sufficient. Not only are they collecting numerous deer, but they're also raising funds for the program. Additionally, the South Wake chapter also collects deer hides for the Elks Foundation, which uses them to make wheelchair gloves and other items through its Veterans Leather Program.
Funding needs to continue
From 2012-2018, grants graciously funded much of NCWF's deer management and donation program, which was previously known as the NCWF Farmers and Communities Manage Deer program. Despite a change in funding and name, NCWF continues to coordinate with meat processors and work with landowners to manage deer on local farms to reduce crop damage.
"I also work with community groups and NCWF chapters that want to participate and develop local deer donation programs. This includes identifying qualified meat processors, mobilizing hunters to harvest and donate deer, identifying local food distribution networks, and raising money for meat processing - a service NC Hunters for the Hungry processors provide at a discounted rate," Rutledge said.
It is important that program costs are covered to ensure that hunters and community-based food pantries can continue to help their neighbors who are in need. Without this program, people would have fewer protein options to take home from food distribution sites. Continuing this work is important for the growing number of people and families facing food insecurity in North Carolina. It is also important for the health and wellness of the ecosystem and deer populations.
NCWF is asking individuals to help cover costs in order to continue the program. In late October, more than 50 donors stepped up to raise $5,000. Even though the fundraising deadline has passed, people can still contribute to help keep this program available for communities and hunters who want to help feed their neighbors.
How hunters can help
The majority of qualified meat processors working with NC Hunters for the Hungry accept whole and field-dressed deer donations at various locations across the state. All deer must be legally harvested and include the hunter's information and the NC Wildlife Resources Commission's authorization number for the harvest.
To locate meat processors that accept donated deer, use the interactive map or view the PDF on the NC Hunters for the Hungry website. We recommend hunters contact participating processors for specific instructions prior to donation.
What's for dinner? Venison!
NCWF staff developed recipes that use venison and nonperishable items local food relief organizations can collect throughout the year. The recipes can be provided to venison recipients, so they know how to prepare the frozen ground venison they're taking home.
Non-hunters and civic groups can raise funds and collect non-perishable food items to complete these 'venison kits' for local food pantries. Please contact NCWF at (919) 833-1923 for more information and many thanks to all those who've contributed to NCWF's deer management and donation program over the years!
Here's one of the recipes that is used by venison recipients if you want to try it at home!
Venison Chili (serves 4-5)
1 pound ground venison
1⁄2 cup onion, chopped (optional)
1⁄2 cup green pepper (optional)
1 can diced tomatoes (15 oz.)
1 can red kidney beans (15 oz.)
1 can chili beans (15 oz.)
1 can whole kernel corn, drained (15 oz.)
1 packet of chili seasoning or to taste
1⁄2 teaspoon ground black pepper
Garnish to taste with sliced jalapeno, cheddar cheese, sour cream, cornbread and/or crackers.
- Thaw ground venison.
- Chop onion and green pepper (optional).
- Open all cans and drain the corn.
Cooking Instructions: Prepare recipe on a stovetop or in a crockpot.
Slow cooker: Add all ingredients to the crockpot and mix with a large spoon. Place the crockpot on high for 4 hours and stir occasionally. Add small amounts of water if chili begins to look dry. This recipe works best if venison is browned in a saucepan before placing in the crockpot, but this step is optional. Cook until venison is no longer pink. Serve and enjoy!
Stovetop: In a large saucepan over medium heat add 1 tablespoon of oil and cook onions and green peppers until caramelized (this step is optional). If vegetables are not used, follow the same steps before adding the ground venison and cook until the meat is no longer pink. Add the ground black pepper, diced tomatoes, drained corn, chili seasoning mix, chili beans and kidney beans. Mix well, reduce heat to low and simmer for approximately 1 hour. Serve and enjoy!
Venison Spaghetti (serves 4-5)
1 lb. ground venison
1 package of spaghetti or rotini
1 can diced tomatoes (15 oz.)
1 jar of Ragu, Prego or similar tomato-based sauce (26 oz.)
Garnish with parmesan cheese (optional)
- Thaw ground venison.
- Open other ingredients.
Cooking Instructions: In a large saucepan over medium heat add 1 tablespoon of oil and add ground venison when warm. Boil water in a large pot and add pasta when boiling. Cook the venison in the saucepan until it's no longer pink and then add the diced tomatoes and jar of sauce. Once pasta is ready, drain and add the tomato sauce containing the venison. Serve and enjoy!
NCWF is grateful to all of the hunters who have contributed deer to feed those in need, NCWF local chapters who have staffed collection sites and built meal kits to accompany the donated venison, and our community partners who help with the processing and distribution for the program. This work is also made possible by the kind investments of people like you.