Legislators chipping in to ‘Hunters for the Hungry’ program

The Tennessee Wildlife Federation reports growing success in efforts to have state legislators donate from their campaign funds to a program for providing venison to the needy.

The “Hunters for the Hungry” program, affiliated with the federation since 1998, involves deer hunters donating a slain animal to groups that provide food to organizations serving the hungry, such as Second Harvest Food Bank in Knoxville.

Hunters for the Hungry has recruited 83 meat processors statewide to convert the deer carcasses into frozen venison at a reduced processing price, typically about $40 per deer, according to the foundation’s executive director, Mike Butler.

To cover that cost, Hunters for the Hungry solicits charitable donations. The “legislative challenge” to seek funding from politicians had its origins three years ago when state Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, embraced and promoted the program as chairman of the Legislature’s Nutrition Caucus, Butler said. More recently, state Rep. Jimmy Eldridge, R-Jackson, and Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, have played leadership roles, he said.

The federation has been sending out news releases on some individual lawmakers’ support for the cause, but declined to provide a list of dollar donations by legislators, instead offering a list of resulting “total meals” provided to the hungry.

State Rep. Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, tops that list with 15,040 pounds of venison — calculated on the basis of an average of 42 pounds of processed meat per deer, which equates to about 168 meals per animal. Runner-up is Eldridge at 13,944 pounds, followed by Rep. Ron Travis, R-Dayton, at 7,568 pounds.

Eight other legislators are listed, all Republicans, including Reps. Kevin Brooks of Cleveland, John Forgety of Athens, Dan Howell of Georgetown and Jimmy Matlock of Lenoir City, along with Sens. Bell and Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga.

Collectively, Butler said legislators’ direct donations totaled just over $8,000 in the past year. But he says the lawmakers involved also engaged in soliciting others to donate and that such efforts, combined with the direct donations, covered close to 10 percent of the Hunters for the Hungry budget for the past year, which director Matt Simcox said was about $171,000.

Simcox also says funds raised through the legislative challenge were surpassed by 15 high schools that organized donation solicitations around the state.

The state Registry of Election Finance website does not provide a way to reliably research such donations without going through each lawmaker’s reports individually. A generic search of donations from legislators to the federation in 2015 shows top contributions of $1,000 each from Reps. Eldridge, Travis and Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, in 2015 — although not specifying whether that was to the organization generally or to the Hunters for the Hungry program specifically.

Overall, Simcox said the Hunters for the Hungry program set a record in the 2015-16 deer season, with hunters donating 140,000 pounds of venison “resulting in some 576,000 healthy meals for Tennesseans in need, many of them children.”

Simcox and Butler said the program offers a way to transform a “renewable resource” into protein-rich food for the needy while helping the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s management efforts to reduce overpopulation of deer in some areas of the state.

The program has participating deer processors in 68 of the state’s 95 counties, Simcox said, with a goal of expanding to include all counties and perhaps a donation-funded budget of up to $500,000 per year from the present $171,000 — a level that would be about the maximum capacity of the program to keep it in balance with management of the state’s deer herd.