Growing Local Roots

Michigan Hunters Work to Feed the Hungry
By Travis Smola VIEW BLOG

Michigan’s hunters work with the Michigan DNR and various organizations to provide food for Michigan’s hungry and needy.


When Michigan’s firearm deer season for whitetail deer opened Tuesday, some were hunting for themselves while others were hunting for a different cause:  To feed Michigan’s hungry.


The Michigan Sportsmen Against Hunger and a chapter of the Maryland-based Farmers and Hunters Helping the Hungry (FHFH) work with hunters to provide meat from big game animals for needy people. Today, some of these organizations donate anywhere from 15,000 to 45,000 pounds of meat to food banks and soup kitchens each year, according to the founder of FHFH Rick Wilson. The meat donated is mostly from whitetail deer, but also includes elk, antelope and even moose when available.


Such organizations as the FHFH often have humble beginnings. For Wilson, it all started with a chance encounter with a woman along the highway in Virginia.


God came to me through a woman who was feeding her kids,”

Wilson said.


One September day in 1997 Wilson said he was driving down

a Virginia highway when he saw a woman stopped

by the roadside. It appeared that she needed assistance.

Wilson stopped, thinking the woman was having car trouble.

She responded, “No,” and asked him to follow her into

the bushes at the roadside.


The woman led Wilson over to a road-killed, 6-point buck.

The woman asked for his help in loading

the buck into the trunk of her car. Wilson told her that she

would need a tag from a police or conservation officer in

order to keep the deer. The woman simply replied:

“I don’t care. My kids and I are hungry.”


After helping the woman load the deer into her car and watching her drive away without even getting her name, the incident began to weigh on Wilson’s mind in the days that followed.


I thought,’ Oh my, this woman is feeding roadkill to her family,’” Wilson said.


After about a week, Wilson said he went to a butcher to see if he could have

a donated deer cut up to feed the hungry. By the end of the year, this newly-founded program received 76 donated deer.


 Wilson’s program was such a success that it got the attention of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. His program was doing as well as a state program of the same nature. After meeting with officials, Wilson was asked to take over the state program because of his success.


Wilson credits his faith and the fact that he got the processing costs completely covered.


The program encountered some difficulties along the way. At one point, the program was $30,000 in debt. Wilson said he received a phone call out of nowhere from the vice president of Beretta Firearms who directed him to Angus Phillips, a writer for the Washington Post. Phillips came out and wrote a story on the organization’s problem. Shortly after it was published, Wilson said the donations came flooding in.


Fourteen years later, the Farmers and Hunters Helping

the Hungry organization has expanded to half the United

States and Canada. Work has also begun work on a

chapter in Kenya.


It’s been a journey I never expected,” Wilson said.


Wilson said FHFH works with processors and butchers

in the states they represent to cover the costs of

processing the animals for consumption.  Wilson said

the organization raises approximately a million dollars

every year for processing costs.


The organization also works closely with other charities

and farmers who may donate extra crops and livestock.

They also work closely with hunting organizations

such as the Quality Deer Management Association,

which is dedicated to better quality deer herds for hunters.


In Michigan, the Michigan Sportsmen Against Hunger (MSAH) is the primary organization working with hunters and deer processors to feed the hungry. The organization, founded in 1991, gets the majority of its donations to cover the processing costs from donations made through the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ website. Hunters can also make a donation when purchasing a hunting license, said Neal Easterbrook, vice president of the organization.


Easterbrook said that the MSAH organization pays processors around 80 cents per pound to cover processing costs. He said that because it’s a good cause, many deer processors don’t even turn in their vouchers to be compensated.


At Bowman’s processing in Climax, Mich. Frank Bowman is one of the processors who participates the MSAH and who never turned in a voucher last year. Bowman decided to get involved in the program after customers began asking about it.  They contributed about 200 pounds last year, but Bowman said larger operations may contribute much more.


It gives customers an outlet for deer they don’t want to eat themselves,” Bowman said.


In some places, the program may be encouraging some hunters to take an extra deer to donate. Easterbrook is an active hunter and said he sometimes harvests and donates up to three deer a year. In addition to recreational hunting, Easterbrook said the program has benefitted from deer population control programs in parks and city areas with excess deer.  


Donated venison is typically ground because it makes it more versatile for the food banks and soup kitchens that use it, Easterbrook said. In addition to providing meals, Easterbrook said that providing meat to organizations helps in freeing up funds for other charity projects that were previously used to buy meat.


Kim Harkness the food sourcer for the Greater Lansing Food Bank, said they have been working with the MSAH for over 10 years. Harkness said response by workers at the bank has been very supportive, and recipients truly enjoy the meat. Harkness said most people who come to the bank are given a pound or two of the ground venison usually with produce, canned or other boxed goods.


Easterbrook said that in addition to working with deer processors, the MSAH, like the FHFH, works closely with groups such as the Michigan United Conservation Club, Michigan Bowhunters, Ted Nugent’s United Sportsmen Against Hunger and the Food Bank Council of Michigan.

The response has been fantastic,” Easterbrook said.