Pennsylvania deer hunters’ good fortune benefits those in need
John DeBerardinis of Link in the Chain Ministries pulled up to Kip’s Deer Processing in Carnegie, energized by word that extra meat was available for food pantries he supports.
His mouth gaped when he spotted the mounds of flash-frozen 5-pound packs of deer meat — nearly 2,000 pounds’ worth.
“My only mistake was that I brought my Chrysler minivan. We packed everything in that we possibly could,” DeBerardinis, 53, of North Huntingdon recalled of the pickup in February. Within a few hours, he had unloaded the ready-to-cook venison at soup kitchens and food pantries run by The Salvation Army, the McKeesport Downtown Housing shelter, Sonshine Community Ministries and nearby churches.
“They gave us a lot of meat — literally, a ton — and we were able to distribute it to a lot of people who really needed it. It worked out just absolutely beautifully.”
Pennsylvania’s Hunters Sharing the Harvest program boasted a near-record amount of donated venison last year — largely because of hunters, butchers and emergency food distributors in the region.
The statewide program, in its 24th deer-hunting season, is on track to surpass 1 million pounds of deer meat donated since its inception, said John Plowman, the program’s executive director.
Last year, the program received more than 2,300 deer weighing a total of 97,000 pounds — 10,000 more pounds than the total for 2013. One deer can provide enough meat for 168 to 200 meals.
“We had a magical year; it was an awesome result,” said Plowman, noting that donations were up despite overall deer kills being down by about 14 percent. He credited the success to an increase in sponsorships that enabled the program to drop a $15 hunter fee for processing. “We hadn’t had one with that kind of poundage since 2007.”
Much of last year’s haul — nearly 40 percent, or 1,044 deer weighing a total of 38,823 pounds — came from Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Indiana, Washington and Westmoreland counties.
“I can’t tell you how many phone calls I’ve taken for people looking for directions to a donation center,” said Johnathan Peffer, 32, who works at the family-run Doug Peffer’s Deer Cutting in Ellwood City, which is among the programs’ 90 approved butchers.
The Peffers’ butcher shop took in 16 deer for the harvest program Friday morning, bringing its total this year to 45. Last year, it processed 1,200 pounds of deer meat through Hunters Sharing the Harvest. Among its largest recipients is City Rescue Mission in New Castle. The butcher also donates game meat with Sportsmen Against Hunger, a Safari Club International Pittsburgh chapter program.
“We have a lot of people that benefit tremendously from this, especially families with children,” Peffer said. “There’s not much better lean protein that you can feed your kids than venison.”
A majority of states have similar programs intended to get hunters to donate their kills, but Pennsylvania’s is among the oldest, dating to 1991.
Plowman said he has consulted with managers of similar programs in Iowa, Hawaii, Rhode Island and Delaware.
Two weeks ago, Matt Simcox of the Tennessee Wildlife Federation visited Plowman and a meat processor in Harrisburg. Simcox, who manages Tennessee’s Hunters for the Hungry program, said he has interviewed managers of similar programs in nearly 30 states.
“After I discovered Pennsylvania’s, I was really in awe with their website, with their programmatic setup, their coordinator program,” Simcox said. “They have great donation records from the processors. I want to try to take some of those ideas and put them to use in Tennessee.”
John Hamilton, longtime supporter and former vice chairman of Hunters Sharing the Harvest, said the program is only getting started — the amount donated remains less than 1 percent of the state’s annual deer kills.
This year’s donation season gets under way amid reported spikes in demand for food assistance and basic needs across Western Pennsylvania. About 337,000 people, or one in seven, do not have enough to eat in the 11-county region served by the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, Feeding America estimates.
DeBerardinis is prepared for the next pickup call from the butcher. He has secured use of a large trailer, and a truck on loan from The Salvation Army.
“Food banks are struggling more and more with being able to keep their shelves stocked,” DeBerardinis said. “We’ve seen an increased need, especially in McKeesport. We see more faces on the street all the time.”
Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or [email protected]