Deer donation program helps feed the needy

Butchers package donated venison in two-pound increments in the long running, DNREC-sponsored Delaware Sportsmen Against Hunger program. (Submitted photo/DNREC)

DOVER — With goodness in their hearts and deadly aims, deer hunters have fed the hungry for more than 20 years now.

In two decades-plus, DNREC’s “Sportsmen Against Hunger Program” received enough venison donations from private hunters to provide approximately two million meals for needy Delawareans.

One hunter even unwittingly provided a donation late last year after being cited for illegal activity near Delmar. The shotgun-wielding, non-orange wearing offender was allegedly caught after unlawfully killing an antlered deer in December, authorities said, fined $2,726 for offenses and court costs and released.

The harvested deer didn’t go to waste, though. Fish & Wildlife Natural Resources Police officers quickly deposited the confiscated deer in a cooler at Redden State Forest in Georgetown so it could become somebody’s meal.

Program director Bill Jones called the situation “atypical” but noted that “we don’t want to see any meat go to waste.”

Dwayne Nickerson has received fallen deer from DNREC for 23 years, washed, skinned and cleaned them at his D&J Custom Cutting butcher shop. The $1.75 per pound fee received for a 10-minute service brings an ample reward in other ways.

“It’s nice to know you are able to help out the less fortunate, which is always a good feeling ” he said. “Plus you help farmers to cut down crop damage, give hunters a place to go for their donation and take part in keeping the population down.”

There’s incentive to shave as much meat as possible from a financial standpoint too, Mr. Jones said.

“It behooves them to be pretty efficient and economic and it behooves them to get a lot of meat,” he said.

Besides hunting and rare confiscations from police investigations, the butchers will accept road kill if it seems edible.

“Our policy is to take it under certain conditions,” he said. “The butchers go by the theory ‘When in doubt, throw it out,’” Mr. Jones said. “If something doesn’t look or smell right then we’ve given the directive to always throw it out.”

Mr. Nickerson estimates he’s processed somewhere between 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of venison since late summer.

In the deer season that ran from Sept. 1, 2016 to Jan. 31, 2017, the overall program handled 631 deer that provided 18,154 pounds of meat.

The Selbyville Community Food Pantry distributed 500 pounds a month since September, and director Vic Murray often hears a deflated, groaning ‘Oh’ from recipients when they learn of the season’s last shipment.

Expanding the palate

Sometimes even the needy can be picky about a free meal, though. According to Mr. Murray, “Unfortunately only half of the people will eat deer meat. The ones who will start asking before September when it will start arriving.”

The Sussex County-based food pantry promotes the meat while trying to expand the doubters taste palates.

“We try to tell them it’s 100 percent lean and you can do anything with deer that you can do with hamburger,” Mr. Murray said.

In fact, Mr. Murray said, deer is so lean that its taste improves when mixed with fattier hamburger for a meatloaf, spaghetti or burger. The nonprofit passes out the venison in 6-pound increments.

Some of the venison is processed at a butcher shop within Sussex Community Correctional Center in Georgetown, where inmates receive job training to package it into 2-pound servings.

Five butcher shops also take part statewide.

The meat remains frozen in the butcher’s shop until DNREC arrives to pick it up for delivery to over 30 nonprofit organizations, including churches, outreach programs, charities and shelters. Since the meat is frozen, Mr. Jones said crews prefer to make distributions on cooler days.

“We turn it around as fast as we can,” he said. “It may thaw a little by the time we arrive somewhere.”

The program receives $35,000 annually from the state to cover expenses.

“As long as we can keep the legislators funding it, it’s a great deal,” Mr. Nickerson said.

In the past five years or so, Mr. Jones said donations have dropped as hunters realize just how tasty the meat can be in different forms.

Plenty of uses

“Venison is a designer meat that’s very low in fat and a lot of people like it turned into jerky,” he said. “Butchers have gotten creative with jerky, baloney, snack sticks that people enjoy.”

Joy Ford of Bread of Life in Hartly said, “We’re always glad to get it. Everyone wants as much of it as they can get, but we mete it out.
“It’s always in high demand and we’re very grateful for any donation.”

Bread of Life received 1,000 pounds of venison last year to stock its freezers in the basement. The organization runs a food pantry with Hartly United Methodist Church for 20 to 30 families the last Saturday of each month.

Participants must be from the Marydel-Hartly area and be part of a government assistance program.

“There’s a lot of needy people and (the deer) is a good staple that can be used for burgers, spaghetti and other things,” Ms. Ford said.

“It has helped us fill a dire need. We don’t realize how good we have it until people come in with their stories.”

The teen ministry handles the program at Faith Community Church in Camden, and donations have been arriving for at least 10 years,

“For us it’s been extremely important and the people we open our doors to,” Bill Kent said. “It’s a blessing to them at a tough time of the year when they’re struggling to pay utility bills and buy food for their families.

The approximately 250 pounds that Faith church distributes during its giveaways is usually gone in 20 minutes, Mr. Kent said.

“Delawareans enjoy the taste, they know it’s organic, they know where it came from, it’s a good source of protein and they like the thought that a hunter took time to (drop) a deer and then make a donation for them.”

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