The average white-tailed deer yields about 42 pounds of venison — or, to put it another way, about 168 bowls of venison chili. And for Tennesseans struggling with hunger, that is quite a bounty.
Since 1998, the Tennessee Wildlife Federation has helped combine wildlife management with community service through Hunters for the Hungry, a program that invites hunters to donate parts of their harvest to help those in need.
Throughout deer season, which runs from September to January, hunters can donate whole deer or portions of deer to a number of certified wild-game processors spread across the state. The processors then grind and freeze the meat, and often help select which local nonprofits receive the free supply.
"Every time I get a new processor, I ask if they have an organization near and dear to their heart," says program manager Matt Simcox.
Each year, Hamilton County's single certified processor receives an average of 1,500 pounds of donated venison, which is divvied up among food banks, soup kitchens and churches. But, Simcox says, the bulk of the bounty goes to One Accord Community Church in Red Bank, an organization that was referred by Bob Winder, owner of Hixson's Middle Valley Deer Processing. The church hosts a number of hunger relief programs, including a food pantry and free meals for children of low-income families.
While many of the organizations partnered with Hunters for the Hungry come through referrals, any nonprofit can apply to pick up the free venison, notes Simcox.
Venison tastes and cooks a lot like beef, he says. "With a little salt and pepper, a lot of people can't tell the difference."
A hunter himself, Simcox's favorite recipe involves wrapping tenderloin strips in bacon and grilling them: "We call them 'deer poppers' at our house," he says.
Not a hunter? You can still help
Each year, the Tennessee Wildlife Federation spends tens of thousands of dollars in processing fees. You can help offset that expense by donating to the cause. For every $8 donated, the federation can process up to 25 servings. Learn more at tnwf.org.
Simcox says he typically donates his first deer each season to Hunters for the Hungry — and the benefits for the recipients extend beyond their plate.
"Science tells us that venison is much healthier than beef," he says.
Deer meat is considered one of the leanest red meats, with more protein and less fat than beef. And for a person that struggles with food insecurity, access to a healthy meal can be everything.
"Almost all our hunger relief organizations tell us we're one of the only places they can depend on year after year for high-quality protein," says Simcox. "As long as we have processors that are certified, hunters that are hunting and deer running wild, we'll have food for those who need it."
By the Numbers
60-plus, number of participating certified wild-game processors in Tennessee
560,000, number of meals served through Hunters for the Hungry in 2019
140,000, pounds of venison donated in Tennessee each year
1,500, pounds of venison donated in Hamilton County each year
168, number of servings provided by an average-size deer
7 million, number of meals provided by Hunters for the Hungry since 1998
43, number of U.S. states with similar programs