Venison stew, venison loaf and ground venison may soon beef up the menu at Maryland shelters and soup kitchens.
The state's two-week firearms season for deer starts Nov. 28, and at least two sportsmen's organizations say they will urge hunters to donate all or part of their kill to benefit the Maryland Food Bank and the Salvation Army.
The Maryland Deer Hunters Association, with support from the state Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife Division, is preparing to launch "Hunters Harvest-share." The program will funnel donated deer meat through about 50 designated butchers to feeding programs assisted by the Maryland Food Bank.
"Not every hunter who enjoys deer hunting enjoys eating venison," said the group's founder, Allan Ellis. "Venison is normally given away to family and friends, or winds up being thrown out when it could be used by someone in need."
"If each deer hunter donates one pound, we'll have about 25 tons," Mr. Ellis said. His first-year goal is 15 tons.
In either case, said William Ewing, the Maryland Food Bank's executive director, "we're talking about more meat than we've ever had."
Meat, especially red meat, is expensive and rarely donated, he said. "We have had some deer meat from them already. The soup kitchens love it."
At the same time, the Maryland Bowhunters Society is hoping to expand a program which last year produced about 2,000 pounds of donated venison.
"I hunt in Maryland and West Virginia, and in both states I can get six deer," said society treasurer Firman F. Kistler Jr., who is also controller for the Salvation Army in Baltimore.
"Now, what am I going to do with 12 deer, if I were lucky enough to shoot them all?" he said. "Sharing is fine and, believe me, it doesn't hurt. There's no use being a pig about it."
Last year's meat donations by Bowhunters Society members went to the Salvation Army's Booth House shelter at 808 St. Paul St. in Baltimore, Camp Puh'tok in Monkton, and to the Frederick Union Mission in Frederick.
"We don't have any left," said Booth House director Ruth L. Ramsey. "We used a lot of it for things like stew. We got a lot of ground-up meat and put it into things like meatloaf, spaghetti . . . and everybody loved it."
Both programs will require hunters to pay the full cost of butchering.
Mr. Ellis hopes to launch a drive among sportsmen and corporations to create a $30,000 fund by the start of the archery season next September to cover butchering costs for any hunter who donates an entire deer.
The sportsmen's organizations have been encouraged by the success of similar programs in Virginia and Pennsylvania, which together yielded 42 tons of venison for the needy last year.
The idea also appeals to state wildlife managers, for reasons beyond their desire to help the needy.
Faced with a deer herd growing to nuisance dimensions in some areas despite increasingly liberal hunting rules, they hope that an opportunity to help poor people will encourage hunters to shoot more deer than they could otherwise eat, freeze or give to friends. It is illegal to sell venison.
Deer hunters in Maryland have shot about 45,000 white-tailed deer in each of the last two years, most during the two-week firearms season, but others during bow and muzzle-loader seasons that stretch from September to January.
The state's participation in the Maryland Deer Hunters Association program represents a change in policy, but stops somewhere short of whole-hearted endorsement.
For many years the Department of Natural Resources regarded venison as unsuitable for feeding programs because deer are killed and transported under highly variable conditions, and butchered without government inspection.
Those conditions haven't changed, and they remain a concern for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Regulations, which probably won't be ready for this season, will eventually provide guidelines for processing, wrapping, labeling and record-keeping, and might lead to a program within the Agriculture Department offering butchers training in recognizing disease in the meat.
Meanwhile, Ken D'Loughy, wildlife manager for Department of Natural Resource's southern region, said his agency has assembled a list of commercial butchers who know how to process venison and are willing to store it until the Maryland Food Bank can collect it.
A so-called "Good Samaritan law" in Maryland would protect individual donors, processors and food servers from legal liability in the event that tainted meat does slip through, except in cases of gross negligence.
But Mr. Ellis said, "Nobody that has a grinder and a band saw that's processing deer meat is going to put bad deer meat through their facility . . . It's up to them to accept or reject the carcasses."
How to donate
Hunters: For more information on how to donate all or part of your kill to charitable food programs, contact one of the following organizations:
Hunters Harvestshare: Venison processed at the hunter's expense will be held by butchers for pickup by the Maryland Food Bank. A list of about 50 designated meat processors will be available at deer check stations, or write to the Maryland Deer Hunters Association. 2030 Liberty Road, #200, Eldersburg, Md. 21784.
Sportsmen Against Hunger: The meat must be commercially processed and packaged at the hunter's expense. A list of participating butchers and 23 Salvation Army agencies willing to accept the donated meat is available from Maryland Bowhunters Society, P.O. Box 577, Crownsville 21032.