Hunting to feed the hungry: Program donates venison to charities throughout the state

A deer jumps over a barbed wire fence west of Milton. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Since its inception in 1992, the Delaware Sportsmen Against Hunger program has donated an estimated 1.8 million meals worth of venison to various charities, said Kent County Regional Wildlife Manager Bill Jones, who coordinates the program.

The estimate is based on the assumption that one pound of venison equals four meals.

Last year, the program took in 586 deer, resulting in about 16,800 pounds of venison or just over 67,000 meals, to donate to local churches and charities.

The program enables hunters to donate a recently killed deer, provided that they field-dress it, register (tag) it and drop it off at a participating location.

Hunters can take the donated deers to one of the eight Division of Fish & Wildlife maintained walk-in coolers or directly to a participating butcher, where the meat will be processed for the program at no cost to the hunter.

Bill Jones looks at a box of donated meat at the N.G. Wilder Wildlife Area office in Viola. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Mr. Jones, who’s been with the Division of Fish & Wildlife for 31 years, took over management of the Delaware Sportsmen Against Hunger program in 2014 when Wayne Lehman, the previous coordinator, retired from the department.

“In ‘92 when it was started, it was based off some of the national programs that had been established already,” he said.

Mr. Jones noted that the program is unique in that it is run by his department, a state agency, where most programs in neighboring states are run by volunteers or non-profit groups.

“Initially, there was a lot of volunteer interest in it, but that kind of waned,” he said.

After a deer carcass is claimed by a Division of Fish & Wildlife staff member at one of the drop-off coolers, which are checked almost daily, they take it in for processing.

The program has enlisted six participating butchers in the state — two in each county — with whom they’ve negotiated a reduced rate.

D & J Custom Cutting owner Dwayne Nickerson at his Hartly business. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“We pay them a rate of $1.75 per pound,” said Mr. Jones. “Any butcher with proper facilities and a certain amount of insurance is welcome to become a part of the program as well.”

Since state appropriations cover the costs of processing of the meat the program was able to set up a deal with the Sussex Community Corrections Center in 2005 where inmates butcher a large portion of the deer for free to help control costs. Only “qualified” inmates are selected for the program and all the work takes place in the center’s on-site butcher shop.

Mr. Jones said the deal is a “win-win” because inmates are learning some job skills and the costs of processing are being limited.

“When it first started I was surprised,” he said. “I was like, you mean to tell me they’re giving prisoners knives? But when I went down and watched them, I saw how they did it. All the knives are on tethers, and they document everyone and everything that comes and goes. It’s a very clean, well-run shop and they, of course, aren’t using any high-risk inmates.”

The corrections center takes on a significant portion of the donated deer, more than 200 last year, but because staff is unable to get all the carcasses to the center during seasonal surges the program has to make use of its network of butchers.

Two deer run and jump through a field near Ellendale. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

No matter where the meat is processed, the program’s guidelines call for ground venison packed in 2-pound bags.

“We’re not doing any special steak cuts or anything,” Mr. Jones said. “This way it packs easy and it’s the most versatile in that form.”

The vast majority of the donations come in during the hunting season that stretches from early September to late January, about 50 percent showing up during the November shotgun season.

However, there are various crop damage programs throughout the state that always bring in a few donated deer throughout the year. Mr. Jones is encouraged that donation numbers appear to be on the rise again this year, from a recent lull over the past three to four years.

“It was across all programs nationally that there was a bit of a drop,” he said. “It might have been because of the economy — meat is expensive. Or it could be because venison is sort of becoming a designer meat these days. It’s natural, organic, free-range, no hormones and very low fat. It’s good for you.”

Keeping the trade alive

Dwayne Nickerson, owner of D&  Custom Cutting, has been one of Kent County’s two participating butchers for the program since it began. He and his family routinely donate 10 to 15 deer to the program themselves in addition to the processing they do. Mr. Nickerson owns the butcher shop and the Sudlersville Meat Locker in Maryland, both of which are staffed almost entirely by his family.

“I got into this because my grandparents did it way back in their time, too,” he said. “We’re all from this area (Hartly); the Nickersons have been here for quite awhile.”

When his team is assembled it takes Mr. Nickerson about 11 minutes to carve up a deer that’s been dropped off for processing. He says  he processes from 700 to 900 pounds of venison for the program per year.

He’s proud to be a part of the program and admits it’s also helpful to have the steady work. However, he believes generally that the trade of the butcher is a profession in decline.

“In my opinion, it’s a shrinking profession in the state,” he said. “There are a lot of people out there that call themselves meat cutters, but until you can cut up an animal from start to finish breaking down whole quarters, you’re a box boy — meaning you’re taking meat out of a box and putting it on a shelf.”

Although he thinks the trade has its pretenders, he’s at least encouraged to note that the tradition itself of hunting and eating deer seems to be intact for the most part.

“I’d say the amount of hunters is staying steady,” he said. “We love seeing younger hunters come in. We offer any young kid that comes into our shop who’s killed his first deer to butcher it for free.”

Any butchers wanting to participate in the program or charities wanting to receive donated venison are encouraged to call Mr. Jones at (302) 284-4795.

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