Hunters can help their hungry neighbors by donating fresh deer meat through an annual Missouri Department of Conservation program.
Through the "Share the Harvest" program, almost 4,000 hunters gave more than 213,000 pounds of venison to the needy in 2014. In the St. Louis region, Operation Food Search gets about 10,000 pounds of food annually. The University City-based nonprofit distributes free food to 250 agencies, food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters in the bi-state region.
"Especially during holiday season, when naturally our thoughts turn to others, this is a great way to help," said Operation Food Search executive director Sunny Schaefer. "It’s easy, and it makes everybody feel good to know they are helping others."
To donate, MDC media specialist Dan Zarlenga said hunters must bring the deer to approved Share the Harvest meat processors.
"They donate either all or part of deer they harvest, and the meat goes to hungry folks and families in need in the St. Louis area," Zarlenga said.
Hunters are responsible for the costs of processing. For hunters donating whole deer in the St. Louis area, those expenses will be covered entirely by the MDC, Conservation Federation of Missouri, Operation Food Search and the Denny Dennis Memorial Fund.
"One of the things that food pantries and donation systems get a lot is things like canned goods, dried goods, things like that, but one of the things they don’t get a lot of is red meat," Zarlenga said.
Delivering fresh food to those in need is "the biggest part of the mission" at the 35-year-old Operation Food Search, which provides food for about 190,000 people every month, Schaefer said.
But keeping those donations fresh and safe to eat means the organization must work quickly. Within just a few days, deer donations go from the processors to the organization's huge freezers and then out for distribution to partner agencies.
As she recently showed off several boxes of steaks, roasts and ground deer meat in the organization's freezer waiting to be distributed, Schaefer talked about the benefits of venison. A healthier red meat, it is low in fat and high in protein, which she said is especially important for "growing children whose bodies and minds are developing."
"Our agencies are very happy to receive this; red meat is always in high demand," she said. "All kinds of protein are very expensive to purchase, so if someone is on a limited budget, obviously they aren’t going to be able to buy protein items. We're delighted to give them the venison, because it helps them help their clients with an item that otherwise might not be available."
Plus, Schaefer said deer meat is easy for people to prepare.
"It looks just like red meat, so you can grill it, make stews out of it, hamburgers, chili, a variety of things," she said.
An added bonus of the program is that hunters can put truly local food on neighbors' tables, Zarlenga said.
"For the hunters who donate, the benefit is knowing that they are helping the community, the satisfaction that they are carrying on a tradition of hunting to provide either for yourself, your family or your community," he said. "So they are carrying on that tradition of providing for those who need and I think that's probably one of the biggest rewards for those participating in the program."
The partnership between the MDC and Operation Food Search started in 2008 and is popular among hunters. But Schaefer said she hopes more hunters participate and wants them to know that every little bit helps.
"We work with almost 900 different food donors," she said. "Some give a lot, some a small amount. It's important for everyone to be involved."
While the main deer hunting season for firearms has ended, there are other opportunities for hunters to donate. The archery season is underway until Jan. 15, and alternative firearms like muzzleloaders and crossbows can be used from Dec. 19 to 29. Antlerless deer may be hunted through Dec. 6, and another chance for youth to hunt with firearms will be held Jan. 2 and 3.