Fall’s deer hunt has an altruistic side.

A light snow falls on the bright orange brim of a hunter’s cap as he steadies his rifle against the massive oak tree that has hidden his body since sunrise. His heart begins to pound as a 10-point buck ambles into his crosshairs barely 100 yards away. Then, a flash fills the shadows of the forest, and the thunder of a gunshot echoes across the mountaintops.

But this majestic beast isn’t destined for the nearest taxidermist. The hunter has a more altruistic destination in mind. In a few hours the animal will be on its way to a program that feeds the less fortunate in West Virginia: Hunters Helping the Hungry.

A self-funded state program, HHH provides thousands of pounds of deer meat to families in need across the state each year. The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Section coordinates the program, but many partners, from Governor Earl Ray Tomblin to civic groups, churches, and private companies, work hand in hand to make the program a success. “Hunting is a huge sport in our state and a majority of the folks who will harvest a deer will eat it, but there are some folks who don’t,” says WVDNR spokesperson Judy Channell. “So potentially that leaves a lot of unused venison out there that can be donated to the less fortunate.”

West Virginia’s Hunters Helping the Hungry program feeds hundreds of families with the bounty of fall deer each season.

The concept is simple. From the beginning of bow season to December 31, a hunter who harvests a legal deer can donate that meat to HHH by delivering the deer to one of 16 certified processers, where the meat is ground and packaged in two-pound portions that resemble hamburger but are much leaner. The versatility of the packaging allows cooks to make everything from skillet meals to mouth-watering deer burgers with all the fixings.

Venison is nutritious, low in fat, and packed with protein, making it a highly sought-after food pantry item, says Chad Morrison, executive director of Mountaineer Food Bank in Gassaway. For some, the taste of fresh venison rivals anything that can be bought at a supermarket. “Meat is the hardest item for us to get donated,” Morrison says. “Meat is just so expensive, so many people don’t donate it. So the HHH program really goes a long way in supplying the protein that we need to get to our clients.”

All venison collected by the HHH program is distributed throughout the state to church pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, and others in need. Since the program’s inception in 1992, more than 23,000 deer have been donated. On average, each deer can provide about 35 pounds of meat, or 140 meals. That means an astounding 1.1 million meals have been provided to the needy over the last two decades.

But getting the meat to the pantries and other service organizations is a feat of coordination. Two nonprofit organizations handle this responsibility: Mountaineer Food Bank and Facing Hunger Foodbank in Huntington. After processing, the meat is collected by refrigerated trucks and is distributed during the food banks’ regular schedules, usually beginning around Thanksgiving week. An online inventory system allows the soup kitchen, pantries, and other service organizations to place product orders. “There is a significant amount of logistics to the program and our calendar is set a year in advance,” Morrison says.

The 2014 Govenor’s One Shot banquet celebrates the program and its many partners.

Expenses for the HHH program top out at about $119,000 per year. The food banks are reimbursed for their distribution and pickup costs, and processors are paid $1.45 a pound to skin the deer, debone it, and grind the meat, which makes up the bulk of the program expenses. During what can be their busiest time of the year, processors also take considerable losses on their bottom lines. “The processors charge HHH about $50 for each deer, but if they were processing the deer for individual hunters, that cost could be anywhere from $85 to $100,” Channell says. “Processors are committed to this program to help the needy, and we are always looking for certified processors who would like to join the program.”

“It’s a great way to giveback to the community and spend time outdoors.”

Frank Perry, deer hunter

Because federal laws prohibit hunter-licensing fees from being used to pay for the program—licensing revenues must be used to directly benefit fish and wildlife programs in the state—HHH must rely on other funding streams such as grants from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources to help offset costs. The program has also created several unique ways to raise funds, including Share the Harvest Sunday, a fundraiser in connection with the West Virginia Council of Churches that asks more than 3,000 churches to take up a special collection during services. In 2015, Share the Harvest Sunday is scheduled for November 1.

Another successful fundraiser for HHH is the Governor’s One Shot Whitetail Hunt coordinated at Stonewall Resort in Lewis County in late October. Celebrating its ninth consecutive year, the event was originally created by thenGovernor Joe Manchin. Last year more than 20 corporate sponsors and 30 individuals helped to raise funds during the special doe-only hunt, along with a Wounded Warriors team of veterans, Senator Joe Manchin, and retired General Chuck Yeager. “Each year, approximately $65,000 is raised to help the HHH program, and all deer are also donated,” says Wendy Greene, assistant to DNR Director Robert Fala.

Frank Perry of Sissonville is one of the handful of hunters who successfully participate in the One Shot hunts. He has harvested a deer each year for the program, and his employer, Columbia Pipeline Group, also donates to the fundraiser. “It’s a great way to give back to the community and spend time outdoors,” he says.

West Virginia’s avid hunters are integral to the success of the Hunters Helping the Hungry program.

As successful as the program has been, DNR’s Fala says the HHH program shows no signs of slowing down. “I am proud to be part of this community service program. For 23 years, Hunters Helping the Hungry has provided healthy food for the underprivileged in West Virginia. It’s a program everyone can feel good about.”

For more information about the program, Share the Harvest Sunday, or to donate a deer, visit wvdnr.gov.

This story was originally published in the November 2015 issue of Wonderful West Virginia.