By todd traub
Leader sports editor
It’s an economic indicator that doesn’t get the same publicity as jobless rates or consumer-confidence indexes.
But at the Cabot Meat Market, where proprietors Cindy and Greg McNerlin help process wild game for the Arkansas Hunters Feeding the Hungry program, it is clear times have been tough.
Cindy McNerlin said donations of deer to the popular program, supported by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, are down this holiday season even as she has seen an “overwhelming” increase in business.
“Donations have not been as much because with the economy, everyone is trying to fill up their freezers,” McNerlin said.
Arkansas Hunters Feeding the Hungry is a non profit, 501C organization that began in 2000. Entering the current deer season, AHFH had provided approximately 1 million meals to those who are in need.
The McNerlins’ business is one of the close to 60 processors in Arkansas participating in the program.
Cabot Meat Market processed 1,600-2,000 pounds of donated deer meat last year, and while this year’s estimate is off that pace so far, McNerlin said she thought donations were beginning to pick up as the modern-gun deer season entered its final weekend.
“We have been starting to see a little more,” she said on a brisk Friday morning as she, Greg and a squad of employees scurried about preparing food for delivery.
AHFH president Ronnie Ritter said that, statewide, donations were steady and should match last year’s 34 tons.
“It’s kind of a mixed bag this year,” Ritter said. “Some processors are up this year and some are down. I think we’re going to be at or above what we did last year. Maybe a little bit more because I added a few processors early in the season.”
Ritter said he wouldn’t know exact numbers until the program received its end of season counts, which depend as much on hunting success as they do the generosity of hunters.
“Hunting, you never know,” Ritter said. “I’ve hunted most all my life and you go out, the weather’s good and you don’t harvest a deer.”
AHFH does not distribute the donated meat but works through close to 110 food pantries, churches and other distribution agencies in the state.
“Whatever we can find in their county,” Ritter said.
Cindy McNerlin, who has participated in the program for five years, said many of this year’s donated meat requests are coming from churches like First Baptist in Cabot.
“I’ve had a lot of them this year,” she said. “A lot of churches. They’re in desperate need.”
Hunters can donate all or part of their harvested deer at the Cabot Meat Market or other participating processors. McNerlin said the meat is processed into one-pound portions for ease of distribution and meal preparation.
In recent years, processors have also been given approval to give away unclaimed meat in whatever form it is prepared. McNerlin estimated between 30-40 people each year fail to pick up their deer steaks, sausage or other goodies, and in the past the food just went to waste.
“That’s just sickening, all this meat is getting thrown away,” McNerlin said.
Ritter said the unclaimed meat donations are restricted to the year of the most recent hunt because of health concerns. A hunter with a freezer full of old meat cannot simply give it to the AHFH to empty out his freezer.
“It’s too much of a risk,” Ritter said.
Ritter said deer hunters have embraced the program for a number of reasons.
“In most parts of the state you can harvest up to five deer,” Ritter said. “And that’s more than they want to eat.”
Plus, Ritter said, many hunters are sportsmen who hunt for pleasure and need to do something with their game. AHFH gives such sportsmen a worthwhile outlet.
The program also benefits from the September-October, urban hunts used to control deer populations. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission issues additional doe tags, and in some areas it is mandatory that the first doe harvested be donated to AHFH.
“We typically get a lot of those deer,” said Ritter, who estimated urban hunts provided 140 deer to the program last year.
The modern-gun deer hunting season ends Sunday, though there are a few specialty hunts left on the calendar. To find a local processor or get information on donating, hunters can visit the AHFH website arkansashunters.org.