Chicago Todd McLester goes deer hunting every fall, and he must be a pretty good shot because he gets his deer every fall. Lucky guy.
"In good years," McLester said, "I end up with more than I can eat."
That got him thinking about others who are not so lucky. A little more than three years ago, the Rockford, Ill., police officer rallied some of his co-workers and other hunters to start the Northern Illinois chapter of Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry, an offshoot of a national organization.
Ever since, the group has collected venison and other meat donations from hunters and donated it to the Hunger Connection of Rockford. That organization distributes the food to more than 200 help agencies in 21 counties in Illinois and in Rock County, Wis.
Between its start-up in October 2001 and the beginning of deer hunting season this fall, the Farmers and Hunters outfit has collected about 15,000 pounds of venison, according to McLester. About 400 pounds of pheasants also have been contributed. It is figured that one pound of meat is equal to four meals, he said.
"That's a lot of meals," McLester said. "For a lot of kids, that's the only nutritious meal they get all day."
Most of the hunter donations involve venison, but the organization won't turn away pheasants, either. Pat Girardi, another Rockford police officer involved with the effort, said he took up pheasant hunting last year for something to do with his new French pointer and shot between 30 and 40 pheasants.
"I donated all of them," Girardi said.
This is the most active time of the year for the organization, but in spring and summer, basically non-hunting seasons, "we beg for money," McLester said. "Deer is easy to come by. The money is harder to get."
McLester said the group dreams up all types of fund-raisers, but often they are raffles.
The hunting season coincides with some of the nation's most significant holidays. Many Americans give generously to others less fortunate during the Thanksgiving-Christmas season and hunters are no exception.
Since 1994, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has been behind a Million Meals Crusade through the Illinois Sportsmen Against Hunger program. Headed into this fall's deer hunting season, the effort had produced 139,574 pounds of venison for needy families in Illinois in the form of 558,296 meals.
The generosity of hunters has been noteworthy, but the IDNR still needs cash to fund the cost of processing the meat. One way that money is raised is through hunters' sale of $5 Big Buck pins.
Also, any hunter who donates the $35 cost of processing up until Jan. 15 is entered into a drawing to win a $600 Mossy Oak bow.
Program coordinator Tracy Shafer said that early-season deer donations have been so notable that the state exhausted its funding for processing before the start of the firearm seasons and that cash donations are as important as venison donations right now.
Safari Club International was the creator of Sportsmen Against Hunger programs in 1989 and those programs now operate in some form in all 50 states, Canada and in other countries.
The Tucson, Ariz.-based Safari Club estimates that 230 million meals a year are provided to the needy worldwide through such programs.
The Northern Illinois Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry program is a different charitable outlet.