CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It might come as a surprise to some, but this year West Virginia's Hunters Helping the Hungry program is entering its third decade of providing venison to needy people.
Ed Hamrick, then-director of the state Division of Natural Resources, launched the initiative in 1992. Since then, the sportsman-driven program has provided meat for nearly 3.4 million meals.
"Last year completed our 20th year," said Carla Nardella, director of the Mountaineer Food Bank. "Over those 20 years, hunters have donated an average of 1,100 deer a year to the program. Those deer have provided more than 42,320 pounds of venison a year, and that venison has provided an average of 169,280 meal-sized servings of meat each year.
"If you total all those averages up, the numbers get really impressive - 846,395 pounds of venison and 3,385,580 meals."
The program allows hunters to donate legally killed deer through a network of 19 USDA-approved meat-cutting facilities. The animals are butchered, and the venison is ground into one-pound packets and trucked to the Mountaineer Food Bank for distribution.
Funding for the program comes from individual, corporate and organizational donations; from donations through the West Virginia Council of Churches' annual "Share the Harvest" offering, and through money raised at the annual Governor's One-shot Deer Hunt.
Processing and transportation costs vary according to the number of deer donated. The meat cutters are paid $1.45 a pound to do the processing, and the average whitetail yields 35 1/2 pounds of ground venison. Over the past five years or so, costs have averaged about $70,000.
Nardella said most of the deer are donated during the state's 12-day firearm season for bucks. In late November and early December, Food Bank drivers collect the frozen meat and move it to Gassaway. From there, it goes out to local food banks and soup kitchens and is given to people who need it.
"People like the deer meat," Nardella said. "We get a lot of calls asking specifically for it."
She said the program's main challenge is finding enough USDA-approved meat processing facilities to participate.
"If we had more of those, I'm sure we would capture more donations. A lot of hunters are willing to donate deer, but they don't want to have to drive a long way to make the donation."
Individual donations for the program can be made, via check or money order, to Hunters Helping the Hungry, P.O. Box 38, French Creek WV 26218. Donations can be made through participating churches on Share the Harvest Sunday, which will be observed on Nov. 3 this year.
Nardella considers all of the Mountaineer Food Bank's programs to be worthwhile. She added, however, that she has a soft spot for Hunters Helping the Hungry.
"It's a special program to us because it's West Virginia-grown," she said. "It's us helping each other."
Here is a list of meat cutters participating in Hunters Helping the Hungry this year: