Along with things like canning, knitting, and chicken farming, hunting has seen something of a renaissance lately among the navel-gazing set. The New York Times recently pointed out a new crop of books on the topic from authors who have “largely taken to hunting, they say, for ethical reasons.” Primary among those reasons: a search for a “more intimate connection to one’s food,” as author Steven Rinella put it. That search, and a desire to impress my girlfriend’s father, drove me to set an alarm for 4 a.m. on a recent Saturday to go drop plastic ducks into the Hudson River. And possibly shoot something.
In the pre-dawn dark, with frozen fingers and a runny nose, I felt far less contemplative about the human connection to our food, and far more focused on not falling into the drink nor missing a precious round of coffee. Greg broke out the thermos after we had towed the boat to the river, launched it from a trailer, motored the mile or so to the hunting spot north of the Bear Mountain Bridge, untangled strings of decoys, and dropped them in the water, all in the dark.
“The thing about duck hunting is that it has a lot of moving parts,” Greg explained to me as we sat freezing our toes off under a brilliantly pink sunrise that lit up the Hudson Valley’s western bank. Bear Mountain glowed pink. “Much more than deer hunting, where you basically sit still with a rifle until something walks by.” But you also get to sit in a boat and drink coffee, so it has its benefits.
The authors surveyed by The Times are working out some pretty complicated issues about our relationship to nature as a resource for both nutrition and recreation. That relationship looks to be fascinating more and more people these days. Mark Zuckerberg in 2011 rather famously pledged to eat only meat he killed. And the U.S. Department of Interior’s recent five-year survey found the number of hunters in the United States had increased 9 percent, after dropping steadily for the past 30 years.
But like all resources, not everybody gets an equal share of our nation’s food supply. Hunger persists, as statistics compiled by Feeding America show, with 15 percent of American households classified as “food insecure.” Hunters, in their growing legions, can help alleviate that hunger by donating their kills to organizations that coordinate meat processors and food banks. They mostly deal with venison, since a deer can yield about 40 to 50 pounds of meat while a duck only yields about a pound.
Such organizations operate in 32 states, said Greg Fuerst, the donation coordinator at the Bath, New York-based Venison Donation Coalition (and a different Greg from the one who took me hunting). Since it started in 1993, Venison Donation Coalition has processed and delivered to food banks an average of 37 tons of venison per year, Fuerst said. The amount peaked in 2003, with about 52 tons, and has been up from the average the last couple of years. “We went from 80,000 pounds in 2010 to 88,000 in 2011,” Fuerst said. They consider one serving of venison to be a quarter pound, which means the coalition processed and delivered 352,000 servings last year. In Virginia, a similar group called Hunters for the Hungry processed and distributed 391,922 pounds—about 196 tons—of meat last year.
But as I learned on my own hunting trip, there are no guaranteed results. We saw two ducks in about four hours of hunting and only one, a black duck that Greg shot, will make for good eating.
Game meat, while a valuable source of lean protein for food banks, is not a predictable one. “Our deer donations at this point are down some. We were off last year a few thousand pounds compared to the year before,” said Gary Arrington, special projects coordinator for Virginia Hunters for the Hungry and a former game warden. “Last year, in a single year, our program processed and distributed 391,922 pounds.” But he said this year a combination of fewer deer and a persistently poor economy had driven down donations.
“You never know. I’m a hunter and I was seeing deer in early October and haven’t seen one while out hunting in weeks,” Arrington said. “I was at a conference recently where all the farmers and hunters were saying they hadn’t seen a lot of deer as of late. It could be they’re just eating acorns and aren’t moving around as much.” And those that do bag a deer are apparently less likely to share it. “Maybe hunters are donating less because they’re eating the deer they kill or they’re donating it within their own community. They know someone who lost a job and they’re giving the meat to them. And people who still have jobs are having to put in more and more time at those jobs, so they have less time to hunt.”
Still, for those taking up the sport anew or finding luck in the field where Arrington has not, a venison donation program would be worth considering for at least some of this year’s kill. There’s not really a national program, though Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry comes close, operating chapters in several states. Most states have at least one or more non-profit organizations that do this kind of work, and they’re easy enough to find through a Google search or on your state’s fish and game department website.
As for me, I’m looking forward to some wild duck tacos, but I’m thankful I don’t have to rely on my hunting skills to keep meat on my plate.