Why Soup Kitchens Serve So Much Venison

The unlikely but unmistakably American intersection of bow hunting, pest control and hunger relief.

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Flickr/Clearly Ambiguous

When was the last time you enjoyed venison? For a large number of Americans, it was not at a rustic lodge or a fancy restaurant, but at a food bank or soup kitchen.

In 2010, hunters’ organizations gave over 2.6 million pounds [PDF] of game meat, mostly deer, to the poor and the hungry—over 10 million meals. Much of the meat comes, not surprisingly, from the rural areas where deer hunting is a weekend pastime. But a growing percentage of it comes from the suburbs of American cities, at the unlikely but unmistakably American intersection of bow hunting, pest control and hunger relief.

To understand how this unusual relationship developed, a little history: At the turn of the 20th century, whitetail deer in the U.S. numbered less than half a million, having been hunted nearly to the point of extinction. Today of course most of us buy our dinners at supermarkets rather than hunt them down with a bow and arrow, and the whitetail deer has rebounded. There are now close to 30 million of them in the U.S.

The American deer has rebounded so well, in fact, that the whitetail has gone from an endangered species to a nuisance, at times a dangerous nuisance. In 2006, Greg Crearcy of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department neatly summarized the double-edged sword of deer population densities, which “have exceeded the land’s ability to sustain them… and society’s ability to tolerate them."

Washington, D.C., New Haven, New York City and countless other U.S. cities have all experienced surging deer populations in recent years. Fifty years of suburban development—which offered the country’s green space and the city’s lack of predators—created the perfect environment for whitetail deer. The animals brought with them concerns about Lyme disease and ecosystem damage, in addition to automobile collisions (deer cause over a million car accidents every year). In response, more or less simultaneously, two sets of organizations began to emerge.

One was the suburban whitetail management association, a euphemism for people who hunt deer in suburban areas so heavily populated with both deer and humans that hunters generally use crossbows instead of rifles. “When you’re 300 yards from a house,” said Marty Hays, who runs Suburban Wildlife Management of Maryland, "you don’t really want to be hunting with a firearm."

Hays started hunting deer in Howard (southwest of Baltimore) and Montgomery Counties (northwest of Washington D.C.) in 1991, in response to a surplus deer population. Now his organization has 42 members and kills about 500 deer a year. There’s a corresponding organization south of the capital, Suburban Whitetail Management of Northern Virginia, which offers airport management, among other things. Similar groups exist in the New Hampshire suburbs, in the parks and backyards of Philadelphia, in the sprawl of Northern Georgia, and elsewhere.

Indeed, the exploding deer population had become an issue all over the country. In Princeton, New Jersey, the writer Joyce Carol Oates said there had been “no more divisive issue” in her 20-plus years in town than what to do about all the deer. She was not in favor of hunting the deer, and there are others who agree. Organizations like PETA and the Humane Society campaign against hunting; towns like Highland Park, Illinois, have decided to control its deer population by capturing and sterilizing female deer. You could argue about which technique is more humane, but sterilization costs $750 a deer and, obviously, doesn't produce any food.

Around the same time Marty Hays was starting to pick off deer with a bow and arrow in the Baltimore suburbs, a Virginia man named David Horne heard of a program in Texas through which hunters donated extra meat to charities. Horne, who worked for a hunger charity, thought the idea could work in Virginia and started Virginia Hunters for the Hungry in 1991. That year, Horne donated over 30,000 pounds of venison. The next year, he doubled the amount. And three years later, doubled it again. Now, Virginia’s Hunters for the Hungry program donates about 400,000 pounds of meat a year—more than any other state program.

During that time similar operations emerged in nearly every U.S. state. The operating principle is pretty standard: any meat processor will offer a reduced rate on cleaning and packing the deer if the hunter wants to donate it to charity. Mobile freezers set up around the state preserve deer that can’t immediately be processed. From the processor, the deer is delivered to food banks and shelters.

Often, the deer comes not from Virginia’s rural west but from its northern suburbs. "You’d be surprised how much meat we get from Northern Virginia," said Gary Arrington, the special projects coordinator for Virginia Hunters for the Hungry. "All that development concentrates deer in certain small wooded areas. There’s been an explosion in the population of deer." Around Dulles International Airport outside Washington D.C., he says, there is a particularly rich harvest. And since suburban deer management associations hunt not just for their own freezers but at the behest of municipalities, they make good partners for donation programs.

In the end, thousands of pounds of venison end up at charities like Feeding America--Southwest Virginia, which distributes food supplies to 414 programs in the Virginia panhandle. Pamela Irvine, the executive director of the branch, has been working with Hunters for the Hungry for years, and said it gets great reviews from her distribution network. "They love it," she says. "The pantries like it, the clients like it. I get calls every year to ask when the venison is coming in."

Top image: Flickr user Clearly Ambiguous.

About the Author

  • Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.