“I could have 10 people ready to work on Saturday to butcher, we got all the equipment, but we just don’t have the people donating the deer anymore,” Bullock said. “Years ago, yes. Now we just don’t have that.”
When the pair started Sportsmen Taking Aim Against Hunger in 2006, a group that takes deer donations from hunters and coordinates with processing businesses to grind the meat for charity, they received about 30 donated animals. This year, McConnell said that has dwindled to one.
For reasons ranging from fewer deer sightings to hunters being unable to cover the cost to process a deer before the meat is donated, the amount of venison donated to charities has plummeted in some areas. With hunting season coming to a close in Georgia on Tuesday, many pantries are left with less meat to distribute.
Golden Harvest Food Bank received 843 pounds of deer in 2012 compared to the 2,069 in 2010. Columbia County Cares food pantry Executive Director David Iverson said he received no deer donations this hunting season, compared to the hundreds of pounds of prepackaged venison he’d receive in the past.
“We haven’t gotten any this year, and that is unusual,” Iverson said.
McConnell said the economy has affected many hunters’ ability to donate. Processing can range from $40 to $80 an animal, so many are unable to front the cash just to give the meat to charity.
Others have noted they’ve seen fewer deer this season than in years past, which many hunters are attributing to a coyote problem across the state.
He began Sportsmen Taking Aim Against Hunger when he saw a need in the community and thought his sport could provide a solution. McConnell said one pound of deer meat can feed six people and can be worked into burgers, chili and ground meat.
At the time, McConnell said some area processing businesses would work with his group to process the meat at no cost or at a reduced rate. McConnell and Bullock would then take the meat to food banks or arrange for it to be picked up.
As the economy worsened, though, the deal with the processors became difficult, and his group could not afford to support it out of pocket.
“We’re still accepting meat, we just ask the (hunters) to pay for the processing, too,” he said.
The largest effort in the state, Georgia Hunters for the Hungry, has also seen a drop in donations in recent years. The group collected 25,228 pounds of meat in 2010, 5,172 pounds less than the year before, a drop attributed to the economy in the organization’s annual report.
The collection was discontinued in 2012 when Gov. Nathan Deal could not attend an annual duck hunt that was used as a fund-raiser to support the effort, according to Robert Phillips, volunteer coordinator with Georgia Wildlife Federation, a sponsor of the state program.
John Bowers, the assistant chief with the wildlife resources division of the Department of Natural Resources, said some grassroot programs across the state have filled the void created by the loss of GHFTH. Some hunters work directly with churches to donate meat or may drop off the ground meat at pantry’s on their own dime.
Bowers said the deer population has dropped from about 1.4 million in the late 90s to 1 million today, but said he doubted that would affect meat donations. He said the thinner population is a more appropriate number.
“That was too many deer in the state,” Bowers said of the 1.4 million. “Some hunting clubs are seeing less deer than in the past ... but you can go seven miles down the road, and there could be a hunting club with way more.”
Scotty Hall, the owner of Scotty’s Deer Barn in Swainsboro, joined Sportsman’s Pantry in 2011, a group of processors who will butcher for free or at a reduced cost for hunters willing to donate their deer to charity.
He has processed about 500 pounds of meat donations this season, down from the 1,300 pounds that was donated last year.
Hall said donations have dwindled after hunters mentioned seeing less deer and wanting to keep the meat for their own families because of the cost of the sport. Next year, he said, he hopes donations rise and more mouths are fed.
“You’d be surprised at what it can do for people,” he said.