Feeding those in need — with fresh-killed deer
Across the West, hunters and state programs donate game meat to families experiencing food insecurity, but here even government aid requires a little self-reliance.
SALT LAKE CITY — In early September, Jody Young got a call that a deer had been killed and was hers for the taking. She drove to Price the next day, a short distance from her home in the small town of Wellington in Carbon County.
Young, 52, was one of the roughly 700,000 people who lost their job in March. Her husband is still working as a coal miner, so they’ve been able to manage throughout the pandemic by keeping a tight budget. But this would help.
Her husband loaded the deer, skinned and field dressed, into the back of their Ford truck. Next, they’d take it home, hang it up, process it — cutting it up into steaks and making jerky — and figure out how to cook that much venison.
On occasion, the family has leaned on the Tri-City Exchange, a program that provides food and other goods at no cost in the nearby city of Price. But a few weeks ago, Young signed up to receive a game meat donation from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
“We figured it would be a great way to get some meat in the house,” Young said. “It would help us get through the winter.”
The division has been offering deer and elk that are euthanized due to conflicts on farm land for decades, but with food insecurity increasing due to the economic devastation of COVID-19 (by one estimate, 17 million more people could go hungry this year), they made a push to increase awareness of the program, and several local Utah outlets covered it.
In the weeks since the media push, over 1,000 people have signed up for the list, Faith Jolley, public information officer for DWR said.
When an animal is euthanized, the local branch of the division contacts an individual who has signed up for the program — prioritizing those who are nearest. The animal is field dressed (meaning the organs are removed), but participants have to either pay to have the animal processed or do it themselves.
Young’s husband is a hunter so he and his sister hung up the deer in their garage and spent a day processing it. Young’s niece even helped make jerky.
“I let her throw in whatever spice she thought would look good and it actually turned out really great,” Young said.
Utah isn’t the only place where people are working to get game meat to those who could use a little extra help, although it seems to be one of the few states where the government does so. In many states, hunters run programs that donate deer to food banks.
In Idaho, Jeff Schroeder started a program called Hunters Feeding the Hungry, which pays for the processing fees for deer that is then sent to local food banks.
Schroeder has been a hunter his whole life, and when he moved to Idaho he got involved in a local food pantry. He noticed that while the pantry received quite a few donations, they rarely received protein.
“As a hunter, I think that wild game is the best meat out there,” Schroeder said. “I believe in feeding people so that animal life isn’t wasted, not just to put something on the wall. It’s meant to be shared and to help other people.”
This past year, Schroeder has been working with Idaho’s Fish and Game department to process elk that wander onto private land and donate it to food banks.
About 200 elk were harvested in the last year, Schroeder said. He did a rough calculation over the phone, “Those elk provided meals for about 80,000 people.”
In Montana, when hunters purchase tags, they can donate a dollar or more to a program that pays for the processing of venison that is then distributed to nonprofits. Last year, the program brought in around $100,000, Eric Luongo, the agency resource coordinator for the Montana Food Bank Network said. But they can also donate the wild game they kill. Luongo said that 800 animals — roughly 50,000 pounds of wild game — were brought in last year.
However, Utah’s program is fairly unique because it connects directly with individuals.
In Provo, John Belvedere, 60, has a disability that prevents him from working and decided to sign up for DWR’s program. Belvedere used to work as a general contractor and a hunting instructor and has always loved venison.
“I’ve been disabled, and the medical bills are crazy,” Belvedere said. “We’re making do fine. But it’s helped a lot because we haven’t been eating red meat much because the price of meat is crazy.”
Belvedere was able to take the deer he received in August to a local processing center and received steaks wrapped up in white butcher paper.
Overall, he said the program was easy to participate in, and he appreciates that DWR isn’t just letting the meat go to waste. He’ll definitely be signing up again next year.
“You just have to know how to cook it,” Belvedere said. Luckily for Belvedere, his wife grew up hunting and knows just what to do. When asked what his favorite recipe is, Belvedere was quick to answer. “I love a roast.”