Mike Aversa, a semi-retired accountant, goes hunting as often as possible.
He uses the first six or seven deer he kills each season to stock his family’s freezer and table. Venison chili, venison meatballs and venison sausages are staples at his home in Annandale, a community in western New Jersey.
In 1997, a desire to do what he could to share the much needed source of protein with food insecure families – while indulging in a hobby and tackling the severe deer overpopulation of the state – motivated Mr. Aversa to join two friends and found Hunters. Help the hungry.
A quarter of a century later, the program is considered one of the top three game meat donation programs in the country, according to a study by a gun trade association. Since its inception, the all-volunteer nonprofit has organized the donation of 14,731 deer – approximately 2.2 million quarter-pound servings of fresh, lean protein – to New Jersey residents in need.
Two recent grants from the US Department of Agriculture, through the New Jersey Farm Bureau, allowed the program to expand and waive the $ 20 cost of donating a deer to participating hunters.
“The idea is, ‘Take what you need for yourself. But don’t stop, ”said Mr. Aversa, a former partner at a large New Jersey accounting firm. He has been hunting since the age of 10.
The concept is as simple as it is effective: Hunters bring their surplus harvest to one of the seven participating butchers, where the deer are dressed and frozen into roasts, steaks, fillets and ground meat.
The venison then goes to regional food banks for distribution to soup kitchens and pantries, where meats and protein sources are often scarce and demand increased during the first phase of the pandemic.
“The agencies – they start asking at the beginning of September, ‘Do you already have venison? “Said Shannon Williams, assistant manager of a food bank in northwest New Jersey, Norwescap.
“Meat is very difficult to find,” she added. “It provides a source of protein that we wouldn’t otherwise have. “
Overpopulation of deer in New Jersey is a well-known danger that contributes to crop damage and car accidents, especially during mating season.
In 2019, between October and December, there were 4,753 collisions between cars and animals, mostly deer, in New Jersey, according to an analysis by AAA Northeast, the most recent data available on such collisions.
In New York City, where deer have also proliferated, the number of animal accidents in 2020 – 33,956 – included six deaths, the travel group found. County Suffolk, where a deer was filmed in 2019 barging through the glass front door of a beauty salon on a main street in Lake Ronkonkoma, has recorded the second highest number of animal collisions in the State, 1311, behind Orange County of just 116.
To address the problem in New Jersey, the state extended hunting to county parks at certain times of the year and offered special licenses for farmers to slaughter deer on their property during regulated depredation hunts.
Two years of federal grants enabled the New Jersey Hunters Program to purchase a refrigerated truck that, on request, is hauled to farmland to collect deer slaughtered during hunts – meat that in previous years was mostly wasted.
Until last year, the program relied primarily on monetary donations to cover the cost of approximately $ 90 of slaughtering each deer, and required hunters to make a tax-deductible contribution to offset the expenses of ‘slaughter. Federal grants have also enabled the Anti-Hunger Program to waive these fees.
“There were years when we had so many deer donated that we ran out of money,” said Bud Thomas, the group’s longtime treasurer.
Similar game meat donation programs operate in other parts of the country, with Virginia, Iowa and Missouri providing some of the highest volumes of game donations. Unlike groups in other states, the New Jersey program only accepts deer, and each participating butcher must operate from facilities that pass state health inspections.
“I was offered geese, bears and caribou,” said Thomas, mainly referring to game shot outside of New Jersey. “I think I was offered a moose at one point.”
Bob Wilson, an avid hunter, fishing and marathoner, helped found the Cranford Rod and Gun Club in 1968.
He loves bow hunting. But it doesn’t taste like game.
“I’m not a big fan of it,” said Wilson, 74. “I love to hunt, to be out in the woods.”
Each year her first three or four deer go to family and friends. After that, whatever he shoots goes to the hunger program.
He said he typically donates around two deer during the roughly six-month archery season which runs from September to February. This year, he is waiting for his first take.
“It’s a long season. I know my luck will change, ”he said. “If I don’t hunt, I fish. It’s never a wasted day.
Seeing dead deer by the side of the road frustrates him, forcing him to think about the unused meat and the suffering the animal and driver likely endured.
“Instead of being wasted, it goes to food banks,” Wilson said of why he makes the effort to haul deer about 45 minutes from where he lives to a butcher. attending Whitehouse Station, NJ, V. Roche and Sons. . “It’s healthy, healthy food.”
The main obstacle to expanding the program, according to Hunters Helping the Hungry board members, is the need for additional butchers willing to help coordinate with food banks and able to handle state health inspections. .
John (JB) Person runs a family butcher’s shop, Game Butchers, in Lebanon, NJ, and participates in the feeding program.
He compared venison to grass-fed beef.
“It’s very skinny. It’s not greasy, ”he said. “But you can only eat a limited amount, you can only take home a limited amount. “
After slaughtering the donated deer, he freezes it and stores it until it can be picked up by food banks.
“Let me tell you, this is a sought after and much needed protein,” he said. “It was gone in a few days.”