As the whiff of fall descends in northeast Georgia, Victor Devine readies his bow for an annual rite he's observed since boyhood: the deer hunt.
His family of five eats about 100 pounds of venison a year. But in recent seasons, Mr. Devine has returned to the woods to take one or two extra animals, for the benefit of strangers.
He's part of a national "hunters for the hungry" campaign that is racking up record amounts of donated deer, wild hog, and squirrel meat to bolster soup-kitchen chilis during the coldest, leanest stretch of the year for poorer Americans.
Such field-to-kitchen charities draw the ire of animal rights groups, but game managers say they play a role in keeping America's deep woods healthy by curtailing wildlife overpopulation. As the number of hunters declines in the US, and as wild herds grow in many locales, a new market for surplus meat helps overcome many hunters' reticence against taking animals that won't be used, they say.
"A lot of hunters think it's wasteful to take three or four deer if they can't eat it all," says the flannel-shirted Mr. Devine, a middle-school teacher. This program, he says, provides high-quality protein to people who need it, not to mention helping to "get deer out of people's pea patches."
Dozens of programs, often run jointly by states and nonprofit groups, have cropped up since Safari Club, a pro-hunting organization, began donating unused game in the 1980s. But in the past five years, as more rural "deer coolers," or processors, have signed up to take part in such programs, the total pounds donated has risen dramatically, increasing 30 percent nationwide last year alone.
"No chemicals. No hormones. It's field stuff – free-range deer," says Mary Weisenburg, a food pantry coordinator at the Urban Ministry in Athens, Ga. "[Recipients] love the venison chili, and when we serve it in burgers they don't know the difference."
Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry (FHFH), a ministry based in Hagerstown, Md., collects meat in 26 states, with collections rising from 170,965 pounds in 2003 to 282,194 pounds last fall. Last year, about 4,000 hunters contributed enough venison to cook more than 1 million meals, the group says. Georgia's Hunters for the Hungry program calculates it will serve its one-millionth meal in November. Similar programs in Texas and Virginia are also reaching milestones.
"In some ways, [hunters for the hungry] is a program that's formalizing what man has been doing since the dawn of civilization," says Mark Damien Duda, executive director of Responsive Management, a polling firm in Harrisonburg, Va., that specializes in natural-resource issues and counts hunting groups among its clients. "Right now, from a wildlife-management standpoint, it's a very important program. There are fewer hunters and more deer. What could be a better solution?"
Today, the abundant white-tailed deer population is getting blamed for causing all kinds of mayhem – from traffic accidents among early-morning suburban commuters to the denuding of crucial forest undergrowth. At the same time, the US Fish and Wildlife Service reported this summer that the US hunter population dropped 10 percent between 1996 and 2006, from 14 million to about 12.5 million.
In Georgia, which has the nation's second-largest deer herd, those trends mean the seasonal bag limit per hunter has increased from three deer to 12 in the past 20 years. Still, less than 1 percent of Georgia hunters take more than 10 deer in a four-month season, says Brandon Anderson, a state wildlife biologist.
"We need the [deer] population to be lower and healthy, so one way of encouraging hunters to harvest additional deer is to have an avenue where they can donate the meat," he says.
While three-quarters of Americans support responsible hunting, according to Responsive Management, hunters still have an image problem in the broader culture. Animal rights groups, in particular, object to violations of the "fair chase" principle, including trophy hunting exotic animals in enclosed preserves and the practice of bear-baiting, in which hunters put food in a feeding station and then shoot the bears when they appear. What's more, in private, hunters acknowledge that some game processors who promote hunters for the hungry programs instead sell the meat on the black market rather than donate it to charities. (The US Department of Agriculture does not permit the sale of hunted venison due to inspection safeguards.)
"It's great to help others in need, but there are ways to help others that do not involve the recreational killing of animals," says Andrew Page, director of the United States Humane Society's hunting campaign in Washington, D.C.
Food pantries for the most part welcome the addition of lean, organic meat, says Josh Wilson, national operations director for FHFH.
"[Meat] is a food item that is usually in very short supply for food banks and food kitchens, and it's not hard to understand: Fresh meat is perishable and usually ... stores aren't going to have lots of leftovers," says Mr. Wilson.
Syble Dove, a resident of Bogart, Ga., who grew up eating venison, says the staple is part of the patchwork of charity that fills the gap between her food needs and a meager Social Security check.
Last winter, Ms. Dove took home a five-pound "chub," or package, of venison, which she dressed with barbecue sauce. She says it came at the right time, when even here in the most southern Appalachian foothills the nights get cold and the calories more precious. "It's a wonderful blessing," she says.