Back in 1997, as the prolific population of New Jersey whitetails continued to overtop its habitat, Mike Aversa and two friends founded Hunters Helping the Hungry.
Since its start, the all-volunteer nonprofit has arranged for the donation of 14,731 deer — about 2.2 million quarter-pound servings of fresh, lean protein — to New Jersey residents in need. Today, the program is considered one of the top three game-meat donation programs in the country.
Two recent federal grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, through the New Jersey Farm Bureau, enabled the program to expand, purchase a refrigerated transportation vehicle and to waive most of the costs to process the animals. Previously, the funds to butcher deer came from monetary donations to the program and from the hunters themselves.
The overpopulation of deer in New Jersey and New York is a well-documented hazard that contributes to crop damage and car accidents. Over a 15-month period beginning in October 2019, the states combined for approximately 38,000 deer-related collisions, including six human fatalities.
“Meat is very hard to come by,” said Shannon Williams, a food bank director in northwestern New Jersey. “This provides a source of protein that we wouldn’t otherwise have.”
“The idea is, ‘Take what you need for yourself. But don’t stop,’ ” said Aversa, a semi-retired accountant who began hunting when he was 10 years old.
Similar game-meat donation programs operate in other parts of the country. Virginia, Iowa and Missouri provide some of the highest volumes of donated venison, reports the New York Times, which published the original version of this story.
The factors limiting these programs are participating butchers, who also help coordinate with food banks and manage the required inspections by state health officials. And deer-hunting volunteers. And state and federal funding assistances comparable to the recent breakthrough in NJ.
“Let me tell you: It’s a wanted and very much needed protein,” said J.B. Person, who runs the family-owned Game Butchers in Lebanon, NJ. “It’s gone in days.”
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