As hunters take to the woods of New York this fall, it's worth noting that much of their harvest, 35 tons of meat, will be distributed by food banks through the Venison Donation Coalition. "Just humans helping humans and that's good stuff in these times," said the Coalition's Greg Fuerst.
Fuerst, a retired wildlife biologist for New York State, is among the volunteers who work to keep the coalition moving, connecting deer hunters with processors who then turn over pounds of much-needed ground meat to food banks.
The effort began nearly three decades ago when private citizens teamed with state legislators.
"Late nineties, statewide New York deer herd is burgeoning, crop damage is at an all-time high. The sportsmen are telling the DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) that we'd like a program where we don't have to pay for the processing of the deer ourselves," said Fuerst.
"So, the DEC stepped up and provided funding to pay processing. Food banks picked it up and distributed it. Kind of a neat network that snowballed from three processors in '99 to, I think, we're close to 90 to 95 processors today in 50 counties."
In most of New York State, deer processors are compensated at a rate of $1.50 per pound. On Long Island and along the Hudson Valley, the rate is $2.00. Fuerst estimates about $120,000 is spent on processing. In some cases, processors donate their services to boost the cause.
"Sportsmen are family oriented-type people that through the decades have been brought up and taught to hunt and share their harvest," said Fuerst. Hunters incur additional costs--licenses, equipment, ammunition, time and effort.
Like many state-funded programs, the Venison Donation Coalition has survived despite cuts and changes in Albany-based funding. Fuerst says a state grant covers most of the coalition's modest budget. Awaiting approval of such grants can be tense.
According to Fuerst, the coalition receives between $10,000 and $15,000 from donations that hunters make when purchasing licenses. Contributions can also be made at http://venisondonation.com/.
"We hear so much negative things about the world today. Here's a small, but very bright positive." Fuerst said.
"The food banks, our 35 tons of venison, is a small part of what they do. For folks to not only help us, but help them, we're helping each other and making the world a better place."